Opera review Long Beach Opera’s Thérèse Raquin

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Heidi Nye
Culture Writer

Is it ever a good idea to murder your spouse so that you can be with your lover? The simple answer is “no,” but that doesn’t make for much of a storyline. How much of a bad idea it is, is made painfully clear in the Long Beach Opera’s production of Thérèse Raquin, playing through Feb. 1 at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro.
In the Los Angeles premiere of composer Tobias Picker and librettist Gene Scheer’s adaptation of Émile Zola’s 1867 novel by the same name, Mary Ann Stewart plays a Thérèse who is downtrodden from the first moments of the opening scene. In classic Cinderella style, a partial curtain drops from the rafters, becoming an inordinately large pile of laundry that Madame Lisette (Susan Hanson) commands Thérèse to attend to. Lisette raised Thérèse from the age of 3 when her itinerant soldier-father dropped her off and never came back.
Thérèse the orphan and Lisette’s sickly son, Camille (Matthew DiBattista), grew up as unequal siblings— Thérèse more of a servant than a daughter or sister. They shared a bed as children, Thérèse recalling, “I’d smell his sweat!musty as a cave.”
Hardly the way to begin a romance, yet when they came of age, Lisette deemed them an apt couple and they were married. And so one bad idea is heaped upon another in Zola’s novel and in this opera. The next chance to mess up comes when Camille’s friend— or is he a mere acquaintance looking for a good opportunity?— Laurent, an office worker and portrait painter, comes on the scene. Played by Ed Parks, a man many women wouldn’t mind having an affair with, Laurent paints Camille’s likeness while telling a tale of seduction, ostensibly in response to Camille’s question about Laurent’s interesting life but truly as a means to excite Thérèse. She stands so close to his easel and, as she puts it, walks through his breath, that only a man who is totally uninterested or oblivious to sex— as Camille clearly is— could overlook their blatant foreplay.
Moments later, the two are in a bedroom— perhaps Camille and Thérèse’s, perhaps Lisette’s, either in very poor taste— engaging in oral sex. Though they remain clothed and no privates are revealed, there is absolutely no question what’s transpiring.
Such passion has consequences: Laurent’s about to get sacked for taking extra-long lunches, and their risky behavior can’t go unnoticed for too much longer. They decide they absolutely must be together, once and for all, without the encumbrance of Camille.
To say that the couple murder Camille is to give nothing away. That part of the story is foreshadowed at every turn: Over the dinner table, Oliver, the police chief (Zeffin Quinn Hollis), talks unabashedly of a body cut into pieces and stuffed into a trunk, while Camille asks, “Laurent, my friend, do you think that people can murder without leaving a mark?” To which his dear wife responds, “I think I could murder without leaving a mark.”
This is an opera that is a feast for the ears, not just for the modern score by Tobias Picker, but more so for Gene Scheer’s (and Émile Zola’s) libretto. Examples abound. Here are but a few. The insightful from Oliver: “You shake hands with criminals every day, while the innocent are locked behind bars.” The double-edged from Laurent who responds to Camille’s offer to fill his wine glass with “I have plenty here,” as he makes out with Thérèse in the next room–plenty of woman, if not his fill of wine. The poetic: “Even the river whispers what we both must do.” And the woefully misguided Laurent, just prior to the death blow: “Take me where we never have to hide.”
Hiding, of course, is all that one does after committing a heinous crime. Hiding one’s thoughts, words, and gestures from others and from oneself, knowing that the slightest slip can give one away.
Thérèse Raquin is well worth seeing, especially in the gorgeous Art Deco Warner Grand Theatre. The high drama on the stage is echoed in the movie palace’s dramatic architectural flourishes. Special kudos to set designer Alan E. Muraoka for fallen curtains that make for a river deep enough to drown a man and to hair and makeup designer Dolores Polley whose corpse work is worthy of a horror flick.

Thérèse Raquin continues at the Warner Grand Theatre through Sunday, Feb. 1. Matinee at 2:30 pm. Opera talks with artistic and general director one hour prior to performance. Tickets range from $29 to $160 for general admission and $15 for students with ID and advanced purchase. Tickets may be purchased online at www.longbeachopera.org/tickets or by calling 562-432-5934. The Warner Grand Theatre is located at 478 W. 6th Street, San Pedro.

Courtesy LBO Mary Ann Stewart as Thérèse in Long Beach Opera's Thérèse Raquin.

Courtesy LBO
Mary Ann Stewart as Thérèse in Long Beach Opera’s Thérèse Raquin.