PICKER Thérèse Raquin

PICKER Thérèse Raquin · Graeme Jenkins, cond; Sara Fulgoni (Thérèse Raquin); Richard Bernstein (Laurent); Gordon Gietz (Camille); Dallas Opera O · CHANDOS CHAN-9659(2) (2 CDs; 1:49 &)

As much as I enjoy reviewing new operas, I always find it difficult, and typically feel pressed by a deadline to arrive at a verdict prematurely—especially if my experience of it is limited to the audio-only representation gleaned from a recording. Theatrical impact can only be imagined and estimated, while assessing the true musico-dramatic integration on which opera is predicated takes a good deal of familiarity with the work; initial reactions are often misleading. As a critic who prefers to concentrate on what I actually experience, rather than what I would like to have experienced, or would like othersto think I experienced, or what I would like posterity to think I experienced, I am well aware that much that is instantly appealing soon palls, while that which offers little or no gratification on initial acquaintance warrants—and is likely to receive—no further attention. This is true for abstract instrumental music as well, but is an even more crucial and complex issue in the realm of opera.

Tobias Picker, not yet fifty years old, is one of the most prominent American composers of his generation. Despite having studied with such staunch 12-tone composers as Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, and Charles Wuorinen, he is one of those who have attempted to integrate an expressive use of tonality into his musical language, without ostentatiously repudiating his prior orientation. Picker’s first opera, Emmeline, was done in 1996 at the Santa Fe Opera, which production was released on Albany TROY 284-85, and reviewed in Fanfare 22:4.  That work brought him a good deal of favorable attention. Thérèse Raquin, Picker’s third opera, had its premiere in December, 2001, by the Dallas Opera, who commissioned the work in conjunction with the San Diego Opera and l’Opéra Montreal. This recording is taken from that Dallas production.

Thérèse Raquin is based on a Zola novel that concerns a woman whom circumstances have led into marriage with a rather sickly man named Camille. Having become involved in a passionate affair with his longstanding friend Laurent, she and her lover devise and execute plan for killing Camille. In the second act (of two), having waited through a period of mourning, the two ostensible “friends” are encouraged by their social circle to marry, as they had secretly planned. However, once they have been wed, the two are besieged by such guilt, with consequent accusations and recriminations, that they are unable to consummate their marriage. Thus what began as an illicit affair has led to murder; now the two conspirators, unable to live with their deed, independently plan each other’s murder, which ultimately is transformed into two parallel suicides.

Clearly this is a potent subject for an opera. A very workable libretto—much of it in verse—was fashioned by Gene Scheer, a writer, singing actor, and composer in his own right. The two acts are described as drawing upon two levels of musical vocabulary: the music of the first, depicting the couple’s love, more romantic and tonal; the second, dealing with the aftermath of the crime and the couple’s guilt and mutual hatred, more angular and less tonal. However, I (fortunately) found relatively little disjunction between the musical approaches of the two acts, and would describe the opera’s overall style as mainstream neo-romantic, with more musico-dramatic integration than autonomous musical interest. That is, the music is largely tonal in feeling, but with a relatively high level of harmonic dissonance, which shifts gradually and appropriately according to the emotional tone of the drama. There are few passages with the sort of long-spun, lyrical, aria-like focus that tends to seize one’s attention immediately, and is for many listeners a sine qua non of successful opera, but the music is nevertheless fluent and emotionally compelling enough to be convincing. A musical commentary by conductor Graeme Jenkins is included in the program booklet, but is chiefly of value to the listener whose interest has already been sufficiently engaged. In summary, I found the work more persuasive with each hearing, although I have yet to develop a craving for more.

The performance is generally pretty good, and the overall sound quality of the recording is quite acceptable, although in portraying Thérèse, British mezzo-soprano Sara Fulgoni’s enunciation is not clear enough to understand without libretto in hand. While perhaps not a masterpiece, Thérèse Raquin is one of the more promising new operas to come my way during the past few years.