“Most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of … anything
That was actor John Huston’s character Noah Cross, speaking to Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes in a pivotal scene from Roman Polanski’s 1974 film Chinatown. The idea that ordinary people, placed in sufficiently tempting situations, may well commit heinous acts has been the subject of both written and staged drama.
French Author Émile Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin [published 1867], with its tale of adultery, murder, and madness, is a vivid example of this: Thérèse, a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage to sickly husband Camille, takes Laurent, a family friend, as a lover; the two conspire to kill Camille and ultimately plan to marry. Their subsequent decline through guilt, blame-shifting, hate, self-loathing, murderous intent, and, finally, suicidal action makes for an especially emotional read because of the character types Zola chose to create:
“I chose protagonists who were supremely dominated by their nerves and their blood, deprived of free will and drawn into every action of their lives by the predetermined lot of their flesh.”
Zola’s writing was made believable because of his attention to detail:
“I lost myself in a precise, minute reproduction of life, giving myself up entirely to an analysis of the working of the human animal.” (Émile Zola, preface to the Second Edition)
Composer Tobias Picker, already known to our Los Angeles audience for his second opera Fantastic Mr. Fox , chose this as the subject for his third opera because, as he explained, “The novel exudes ‘opera’ from every page. Everything about it is operatic.” Gene Scheer, the librettist for Thérèse, performed much the same sort of tasks that Boito performed for Verdi in adapting Othello for the opera: eliminating much of the background material; focusing on just the most crucial scenes; and, when necessary to maintain the drama’s interest level, accelerating the pace of the plot’s exposition. The characters, Thérèse in particular, are “softened” a bit from the Zola novel. She is made to be more sympathetic by means of an aria in which she explains her early abandonment by her father into the care of Madame Lisette Raquin, Camille’s mother.
The two-act opera balances both the dramatic ambiance and its accompanying music:
- Act One’s key element is seduction, the stage’s domesticity, set in the combination haberdashery and home of Madame Lisette Raquin, providing the dramaturgical background for Picker’s use of tonality as a musical system. In the ensemble scene, Picker, utilizing operatic counterpoint, has his characters simultaneously sing independent, conflicting thoughts: Lisette and her friend Suzanne & husband Olivier sing a toast to ‘the ties that bind which last’, while Laurent and Thérèse sing to each other of their longing to be ‘Alone together’.
Act 1, Scene 2: Drinking a toast on the completion of the portrait of Camille
- Act Two’s key element is guilt, the music’s dissonance reflecting that love is now destroyed by hatred. The wedding night in the bedroom begins with a massive “guilt trip” on the part of Thérèse: “We murdered that love. It’s far away from us now. As far away as the river bed from the dome of heaven.”
Act 2, Scene 5: The ‘wedding night from hell’ commences
Continuing the opera’s spiraling emotional crescendo, the ghost of Camille manifests itself, first to the wedding bed [“May the echo of wedding bells linger with you”] and then, in a scene of revelation, to Lisette, his mother [“Mother, listen -They kissed each other while I drowned”]:
Act 2, Scene 5 and Act 2, Scene 6
All in all, opera’s most persuasive argument for obeying the Law of Moses, particularly numbers seven and six.