by Coril Prochnow, Lister contributor
Based on the book by Émile Zola, with a libretto by Gene Scheer, the opera Thérèse Raquin by Tobias Picker exposes the psychological downward spiral of a young woman and her lover after they conspire to murder her husband. Opening chords of the overture recall Gershwin’s An American in Paris and, as it happens, the dingy back streets of Paris are where the action takes place.
Deposited by her father at his sister’s home after her mother’s death, Thérèse was forced as a child to work in her aunt’s household like a servant and eventually compelled to marry her first cousin, Camille, a shallow young man of weak constitution for whom she has no affection. The opera opens after they have been married for two or three years, when her husband’s good friend, Laurent, comes for a visit. He is a handsome, confident man of fine physique and modest artistic skill, with a healthy appetite for the comforts of food and wine, as well as for the conquest of Thérèse.
Risking the thin security of her place in the family, Thérèse transfers her hopes and physical affections to Laurent while continuing the appearance of obedience to her husband and mother-in-law. When opportunities for lovemaking are blocked, she and Laurent arrange to get rid of Camille by taking him on a picnic to the banks of the Seine, then coaxing him out into a boat and throwing him into the river, capsizing the boat and reporting his death as accidental. The trauma of the murder causes Thérèse to withdraw from Laurent, but Laurent stays close to the family and, after a suitable period of mourning, persuades Thérèse to marry him with the agreement and support of their friends and family.
Once married, the spectre of Camille begins to haunt their dreams, poisoning their union and driving each of them to plan the murder of the other. Face-to-face at the moment of their fatally synchronized attempts, they share a drink laced with poison, ending their suffering in a final shared act of destruction.
Mary Ann Stewart’s portrayal of Thérèse begins as that of a cold young woman, surrounded by passions but untouched by them, masking her own feelings with an expressionless face. Her impassioned arias in Act Two reveal her character’s emotional journey and show the significant range of her considerable vocal and acting talents. Ed Parks, as Laurent, matches her intensity throughout, starting off as a brash, cocky visitor and finishing as a frustrated conspirator in the throes of torturous dreams and dead-ended hopes. His penetrating baritone makes the relentless demands of the role sound easy, with clear diction, strong musicality and solid acting. Matthew DiBattista strikes just the right note as the self-absorbed, clueless young husband, Camille, oblivious to the envy and resentment of his best friend and wife, and completely unsuspecting at the time of betrayal. His strong, clean tenor shines through in his final scene, a high point of the drama.
Suzan Hanson’s beautifully focused tone and fine acting gives Madame Lisette Raquin (Camille’s mother) a powerful presence as the manipulative, domineering matriarch. Ani Maldjian, in the role of Suzanne, brings a welcome breath of normalcy to the seamstress character with her warm, graceful lyric soprano. Her husband, police officer Olivier, enthusiastically sung in a rich baritone by Zeffin Quinn Hollis, is as incapable of recognizing deception as he is unable to practice it. John Matthew Myers lends his polished tenor to the role of Monsieur Grivet, Camille’s office supervisor and an occasional suitor to Mme. Lisette. He and Olivier enliven the opera with its only bit of lighthearted silliness, as they bounce on the wedding bed together and scheme to scatter nettles in it, to tease the newlyweds on their wedding night.
There are moments of intense theatricality in Ken Cazan’s stage direction: the graphic sensuality between the lovers; murderous violence at Camille’s death; macabre terror when his ghost haunts the newlyweds. But these were mere punctuations to the otherwise dark and monotonous litany of daily chores, conflicted liaisons and Thursday night suppers with friends, followed by dominoes. The ongoing drama of resentments, lies, suspicions and betrayals is initially hidden inside the main characters, occasionally glimpsed in their faces or gestures until they can no longer be concealed. But even when finally openly expressed in arguments between Thérèse and Laurent after their marriage, the now-constant drama becomes a new monotony, supported by the incessant, driving sound of the orchestra. Underneath the singers, the orchestration competes for attention as if instruments were screaming at the characters. The harshness of the environment thus created is inescapable, underlining the loveless futility of Thérèse’s life.
The sets are ingenious. With no deep wings or high theatre ceilings to conceal traditional backdrops, designer Alan E. Muraoka built pieces that are about half the width of the stage, atop rolling chassis, to be propelled on or off by stagehands or by singers as they enter or leave the room. Each scene is beautifully evoked by these portable hardscapes, which could be changed in under a minute. Panels of fabric hang from the ceiling all around, adding depth and color while also working as props: pulled down from their hooks, they are linens for Thérèse to fold up and put away; raised horizontally from the floor, they represent the water of the Seine, where Camille is drowned.
Artistic director Andreas Mitisek conducts a chamber orchestra in an effective reduction of the original score. Costumes by Jacqueline Saint Anne are authentically mid-twentieth-century middle class, in colors and patterns that bring the ‘40s right back into focus. Supertitles displayed above the stage keep the plot points clear and allow the audience to enjoy the poetry of the libretto.
The final performance of this provocative work is Sunday, February 1 at 2:30 pm at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro. For tickets and more information, call (562) 432-5934 or go to www.longbeachopera.org.