War Memorial Opera House is a house of singing, and oh, what singing there is in "Dolores Claiborne," composer Tobias Picker's new opera based on the bestselling Stephen King novel. In case you've had your head under a blanket, its star is soprano Patricia Racette, who stepped into the title role just over three weeks ago -- an emergency move -- and sang like a house on fire at Wednesday's opening.
In fact, all five of the production's principal singers were lit up, each invested in the material -- and outshining it.
With a libretto by J.D. McClatchy, the opera -- set on a rural island off the Maine coast -- takes on the heavy themes of marital and child abuse. It concerns Dolores's attempts to save her daughter and herself from husband Joe St. George, truly a devil. But the libretto moves its characters around like stick figures: long-suffering wife, victim daughter, sicko husband. And bang, bang, bang: Out comes the ax, and we're off to the races. Motivation, pacing and dramatic impact are not this opera's strong points. Stuff just sort of happens.
Maybe you've seen the 1995 movie, with Kathy Bates in the title role. The opera is about the same length: two hours, but it feels more compressed, patchier and less shaded in characterization. Director James Robinson must work harder to overcome the libretto's shortcomings.
Then there's the music. Picker's neo-Romantic score is a mish-mash. There's a dirge. There's a ditty, a creepy number, sung by Joe whenever he seduces daughter Selena. There are attempts at rhapsody. There's pulsing post-minimalism. There's a recurring bass line out of the "Get Smart" theme song. There are echoes of Bernard Herrmann and George Gershwin, sometimes in a single package.
Most of it is unremarkable.
Picker's orchestral language, conducted here by George Manahan, can be broad and burly, thick with tart harmonies, and the composer has woven duets, quartets and other ensemble pieces through the score with skill and imagination.
There's a darkly percolating sextet that sticks to the ribs early on, but, for the most part, skillful is not memorable in "Dolores Claiborne." And more than once, vague Broadway echoes are out of sync with the material, as in the second act, when I half-expected graceful tenor Greg Fedderly (almost too gallant as Detective Thibodeau) to break into a chorus of "It Ain't Necessarily So" as he badgers poor Dolores, accused of murder.
"You said you didn't kill her and that don't prove a thing./But I got proof, Dolores. I got the proof right here!"
Well, it ain't necessarily a great score.
But it's a handsome production: Allen Moyer's multimedia sets are cinematic, taking us into grand interiors; or on a ferry ride across a broad bay; or out into the Maine fields, topped by blue skies and then a solar eclipse.
And, oh -- those singers.
In record time, Racette -- who took over the role of Dolores after mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick pulled out because of health problems -- has mastered the thorny 245-page score, which frequently pushes her soprano down to sub-basement levels. No problem. Wrapped in a shapeless winter coat, she passionately claims Dolores as a working-class hero, albeit a complicated one. Having lured Joe to his death (he falls into a well) and gotten away with it, she is now falsely accused of another murder.
As Selena, soprano Susannah Biller is remarkable: a red-hot, supple and full-voiced singer, scaling the extreme heights assigned by the score. As evil Joe, bass-baritone Wayne Tigges sings with taut muscularity; he reeks of sin. As wealthy Vera Donovan -- Dolores worked as her housekeeper for 40 years, and I'll keep the rest a secret -- soprano Elizabeth Futral generates out-sized power, and brings some humor to the production. She imbues her prickly character with charisma -- and gets one of the opera's best lines, advising Dolores in regard to mean Joe, "Accidents can be an unhappy woman's best friend."
This is the sixth opera commissioned by general director David Gockley since his appointment in 2006. That's a great thing; Gockley long has been a champion of opera as a living art form.
But excuse me, is there an elephant in the room? The world of contemporary opera too often is a world of sophisticated blandness. Picker's new work is several steps up from Mark Adamo's lifeless "Mary Magdalene," which premiered at War Memorial in June. But it still feels hermetic.
You have to wonder when some composer will come along and clear the decks, reclaiming rhythm and melody for opera, adding some juice to the enterprise. You know, open the windows. Let the sun shine in. That doesn't mean pandering. Verdi did it. John Adams has done it.
Finally, this question: Which general director of a major opera company, when it's time to commission another production, will get up the nerve to say to its prospective composer, "Look, I will pay you good money to do this, but, let's not include more than a few minutes of speech-song in your score"?
Picker's nearly two-hour score must have -- I'm guessing -- 30 minutes of such angular, leap-about declamations. It's part of an epidemic; too much.
San Francisco Opera
World premiere of Tobias Picker's "Dolores Claiborne," based on the novel by Stephen King; starring soprano Patricia Racette
Through: Oct. 4 (Catherine Cook subs for Racette in the final two performances)
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $23-$385; 415-864-3330, www.sfopera.com