Dolores Claiborne: An Accident Can Be A Theatre Junkie’s Best Friend.
This is a bit of a stretch I must say. What I mean, is that today, I’ll be giving myself a good and thrilling stretch of my theatrical viewing muscles on a rainy Sunday afternoon courtesy of the New York City Opera. I rarely venture to the opera, to be honest, not because I don’t like it particularly, but because I’m not sure it sits in my ears as well as how musical theater can infect my soul. But I was curious, you see; an opera, based on the Stephen King novel, with a beloved movie version of the tale starring the powerful Kathy Bates sitting in our collective memories, definitely tweaked my interest. So what would it be like to see the opera, Dolores Claiborne, with a libretto by J.D. McClatchy and composed by Tobias Picker, both of whom are well regarded within the opera community? I have been craving as of late for an emotionally moving musical experience, and I haven’t seen anything like that in months. The last one, might have been when I revisited the glorious Come From Away over Labor Day weekend with my visiting UK friend, Jason, and I cried as I knew I would. I also know, looking forward, that I’ll be getting my fix next weekend when I see the incredible The Band’s Visit make it’s Broadway debut, and I can’t wait. Having seen this beautifully moving piece of musical theater when it was at the Atlantic Theater last season (winning the 2017 Obie Award for Musical Theatre, three Drama Desk Awards, two Outer Critics Circle Awards, two Lucille Lortel Awards, and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for Best Musical), I will be so ready to be swept away by seductive voice of Katrina Lenk and the smell of Jasmine floating in the air. But at this moment in time, the craving is strong and I am in need. The musical theater season on Broadway and beyond has yet to really start gathering musical steam, but I do see it approaching. Until than, I am going to venture out of my comfort zone, and try some alternatives. This coming week, I’ll be seeing some ballet (The Red Shoes at New York City Center) and today, I am seeing the World Premiere of the chamber adaptation of the opera (arranged by Mr. Picker, City Opera‘s Composer in Residence), Dolores Claiborne in the very intimate theater A at 59E59 Theaters.
For those of us (the very few) that don’t know the tale of Dolores Claiborne, the Stephen King novel that focused on the strained relationship between a mother and her daughter on a remote island in Maine both in 1962 and three decades later. Dolores, the stern and hard-working mother has been accused of murdering the wealthy elderly woman, Vera Donovan, whom she has looked after for over forty years. She was found standing over the dead woman’s body, and because of the town’s suspicion of Dolores and the questionable death of her abusive drunk of a husband years earlier, the police are determined this time to place blame on Dolores. Thirty years prior, Dolores with the encouragement from Vera, and the help of an eclipse, carried out an act of maternal protection, mostly for the sake of her young daughter, Selena, who has never been able to forgive her for. The angry and traumatized Selena, now a big city reporter (in the opera, she becomes a lawyer), returns to the remote island in Maine, a place she has tried to escape from, to defend her mother against the charges regarding Vera, and help get her released. But this relationship is so strained and damaged that even this act of compassion and bonding might not be able to repair the deep-seated wounds from the past.
The cast is exceptional, at least as far as I can tell as I am no where near an opera aficionado. Against what first appears to be a bland and generic set, the projected creations by set and projection designer John Farrell, along with lighting designer Susan Roth create a visual feast as backdrop. Each landscape creates mood and environment so well, we are transported easily to each location. The only moment the stage felt trapped within its small boundaries is during the pivotal chase under the eclipsed sun, but the size of the theater beyond that one moment never felt a hinderance. Without the use of mics, these truly gifted opera professionals fill this intimate space with a sound unlike any found in musical theater. I’m not saying it’s better (or worse) than the beauty of a well trained and nuanced Ben Platt or Rachel Bay Jones who break my heart easily and often in the magnificent Dear Evan Hansen, but the operatic sound that these singers can produce is spell bounding.
Lisa Chavez makes a magnificent and imposing Dolores Claiborne, in the perfect way she is both viciously maternal and cold while also being pained and heart-broken. She quickly pushes any memory of Kathy Bates aside while not obliterating her. Both Lianne Gennaco as Selena and Jessica Tyler Wright as Vera Donovan rule the stage with their incredibly beauty vocal abilities. Wright’s Vera, especially during Act One, Scene Four, when she sings about how “husbands die every day, Dolores…and leave their wives their money” is exhilarating to witness and perfectly enacted. Gennaco’s voice is heavenly but her acting, especially in the final scene with her mother, seems a bit stiff.
In the one area where this operatic casting beats the movie hands down, is with Thomas Hall cast as husband, Joe St. George. His drunken demeanor is definitely more frightening and volatile (along with that majestic voice) than the unrealistic mis-casting of David Strathairn (Oscar nominated for “Good Night, and Good Luck“). The man is an incredible actor, but as the abusive and violent husband to Kathy Bates’ Dolores, one never truly believes that he could ever win any physical battle against Bates. But Hall fills that role completely, feeling both out of control and frighteningly volatile at a drop of an ego-bruising hat. Although stronger and more detailed work needs to be done with the fight choreography (Joe Isenberg) overall and the blocking during the final moments of Joe’s life, the danger of this man is evident and powerful.
It’s quite the dense and complicated plot, and in the novel and film version, themes of sexual assault, incest, and abuse and the melodramatic concepts of the idealized maternal figure and a true feminist heroine who sacrifices the needs of her own for others are fully played out and realized. And they can be found here in the operatic version as well, most dramatically orchestrated by conductor Pacien Mazzagatti and director Michael Capasso, although the pivotal moment of repressed realization of sexual abuse at the hands of her father by the grown Selena, now a lawyer, is not a part of the plot that brings the mother and daughter closer together in the end. This opera doesn’t utilize the repression of the sexual assault but makes Selena consciously aware of the incest acted upon by her father. This adds a level of complication to the anger and hate she holds strongly against her mother. One wonders why the grudge is so strong. The libretto is sometimes a tad obvious and simplistic in its story-telling and usage of slang and swearing, not drawing us into the internal thinking of these characters enough to emotional captivate. But there is a darkness and an aloneness that permeates this chamber adaptation, for all the female characters. As Vera likes to say, “sometimes being a bitch is a woman’s best friend” but it certainly doesn’t bring these woman any comfort or warmth in the end. As the program notes state, “Dolores Claiborne – who has done everything a mother and a woman can to keep three lives together – is left alone”. Unforgiven and abandoned by her daughter, with no one left by her side, this true feminist is truly on her own.
Overall, Dolores Claiborne, although not having the satisfying ending that the film and the novel had, the story remains compelling and completely engrossing. The operatic style of singing is thrilling to the ear but sadly, kept me at an arms length. That might just be my musical theater ear asking for something less showy and more deeply realistic, but if that ear was trained through experience to hear the emotionality within the impressive operatic style of singing, I can imagine a shift in the way my heart might respond. The crowd roared their approval and I joined them in their appreciate of all that talent I had just witnessed. I’m not sure I have realigned myself or stepped closer to becoming an opera fan, but I am a fan of Dolores Claiborne, the opera. Now I wonder how I will do at Matthew Bourne’s magical new adaptation of the legendary The Red Shoes at New York City Center this coming week. I hope I’m as pleasantly surprised as I was here at 59E59 Theaters.