Diva With Bad Knees Flees King’s ‘Dolores Claiborne’

Even in the entertaining annals of cancellations, the disappearance of Dolora Zajick from a world premiere written just for her -- and just three weeks before the opening -- was one for the ages.

Her knees hurt.

So Tobias Picker’s setting of Stephen King’s dark novel "Dolores Claiborne" opened at the San Francisco Opera on Wednesday with soprano Patricia Racette as the desperate housekeeper who has an ungrateful daughter and a few other problems.

You may have seen the 1995 movie with Kathy Bates. You do not need to see the opera.

Other than selling a few tickets on the King name, it was hard to see why anyone thought this small-scale melodrama would make for a grand-scale opera.

Why a major company would invest resources in telling her story is a secret much more interesting than the one poor, abused Dolores is trying to hide.

And wasn’t it a little naive to expect Zajick, 61, a mezzo with a tiny repertoire and a host of issues (don’t approach wearing cologne) to learn a new role?

Picker, 59, did himself no favors in SFO magazine by calling his heroine "an American Tosca."

Reality Check

Oh stop. Tosca is a glamorous, imperious singer in a time of massive political upheaval, not a housekeeper in Down East Maine.

She’s a small-town introvert, and her life is sad but really rather boring. King’s creepiness doesn’t shine into J.D. McClatchy’s episodic, nonsensical libretto.

He’s turned the story into a narrative about redemption between Claiborne and her daughter, Selena, sung by an overwhelmed Susannah Biller.

All along there are all too many expository sentences. "I’m a useless old woman/ A pest and a problem," sings Vera, Claiborne’s employer, played by Elizabeth Futral.

Picker hasn’t had an operatic success since his first, "Emmeline," in 1996. The dreary "American Tragedy" disappeared from the Metropolitan Opera not long after opening in 2005. It has left a gloomy echo on YouTube.

"Claiborne’s" orchestration seemed strangely removed from the vocals. It was as if Picker had written two pieces of music with little thought to how they would fit together. Stylistically, the score ranged from minimal to grandiose musical.

That Claiborne’s role, written for a booming mezzo, could easily be reconfigured for a soprano, suggests he has little sense for expressing character through vocal timbre and range.

Lots of talent was expended on this exercise in banality.

Dramatic Production

In her humble cardigan and skirt, Racette brought humanity and pathos to Claiborne. Wayne Tigges, as her abusive husband, Joe, managed to inject personality and thought into a character that was written in broad strokes. Greg Fedderly was stuck in the thankless role of Detective Thibodeau. "I’m going to trap you," he sings to Claiborne. "I’m going to get the truth." Riveting stuff.

Fortunately, the production by director James Robinson and designer Allen Moyer provided much distraction. The pacing was skillful; the images often atmospheric and beautiful. Lots of effects came off nicely, even dramatically, starting with the opening tableau of Vera dead at the bottom of her stairs.

Background video projections showed harbors, oceans, forest, and sky -- and the eclipse that allowed Claiborne to do away with her husband.

David Gockley, the company’s general manager, isn’t having much luck commissioning new operas. "Heart of a Soldier" went nowhere; the bizarre "Gospel of Mary Magdalene," had a libretto with about 100 footnotes.

Meanwhile, the company’s history as a destination for the singing elite seems of the past. This season features nine operas, with Racette, not quite a global divinity, singing "Madame Butterfly," "Mefistofele," "Show Boat" and now "Claiborne." Really?

(James Tarmy is a writer for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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