- Reporters Desk
By John Farrell, Curtain Call Writer
The Long Beach Opera opened its 2015 season with performances of Tobias Picker’s Thérèse Raquin at the Warner Grand in San Pedro.
Picker’s opera was premiered in 2001. It was one of the first operas of the new century, which was based on a novel of the same name that Emile Zola wrote in 1867.
Thérèse Raquin was Emile Zola’s first attempt at what was called “naturalism,” a look at life inspired in large part by Darwin’s ideas. This view abandoned the romantic point of view for stories that emphasize the underlying forces that influence human actions. Whatever you think of the 19th century literary movement, you will have to admit that it does not translate easily into opera, which is by choice always romantic. Even at its most desperate and dismal, the people on stage are singing, not talking. They may sing violently, murderously, but they are singing nonetheless and it takes a special talent to make them seem that way.
Picker’s operatic vision, with a poetic and often intense libretto by Gene Scheer, just can’t handle that intensity. Scheer has admitted that he only used the story, not the novel’s intensity, as an inspiration. Thérèse Raquin the opera is very different from Thérèse Raquin the novel. In the novel there is no one to like, no one to identify with. It is a dismal portrait of a small segment of French life, a pessimistic view. But opera has to have glory, has to have grand moments of passion, not just moments of sexual gratification. In the translation from novel to opera, Thérèse Raquin is seriously, perhaps irreparably, damaged.
Thérèse Raquin is the story of a young woman forced into marrying her cousin. There is no love in the marriage, but she finds sexual release in the arms of another, who eventually conspires with her to kill her husband. Eventually destroyed by guilt, Thérèse and her lover commit suicide. Not much of a plot, but many operas don’t have more to go on. But updating the story to 1946, when the world had changed much from the repression of 1860s Paris just made the story harder to believe.
Soprano Mary Ann Stewart was Thérèse, the victim of fate, perhaps, of her own unformed desires. She was pretty and not at all flirtatious for the most part, but it was hard for her to make Thérèse an appealing character. Picker’s tuneful, often delirious music seemed often out of place. Stewart sang brilliantly but couldn’t overcome the confusion on stage. Ed Parks was Laurent, her lover and, apparently, the man who convinced her to commit murder. He was brilliant, a commanding presence physically and vocally, but never engaged the audience’s sympathy. Together they sang impassioned duets but never soared to real intimacy.
The only character with whom you could have sympathy for is Camille Raquin (Mathew DiBattista). In the novel he is a cripple, a cypher whose murder is just a fact. But onstage, he is a man who actually had a sympathetic edge, until he was thrown overboard and murdered. Madame Lisette Raquin (Suzannaanson) was never able to engage the audience either. The music, often redolent of a film score, was more delicious than the story it limned.
Long Beach Opera‘s production on the shallow Warner Grand stage was brilliantly conceived by Alan E. Muraoka, using the shallow space effectively with drops and a boat that was lifted above the stage for effect. The weekly domino parties where much of the story is told were on a platform center stage. David Jacques did an effective and even intriguing lighting design.
Mitisek led from the pit and balanced his orchestra to the stage necessities. It was elegant and bright, and the acoustics were reliable and bright, even from the back of the big movie house. The supertitles revealed the glories of Scheer’s text, which was better than his story.
The large audience on opening night proved that Long Beach Opera has an audience that wants new and intriguing operas. They seemed to love the work.