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The story of Tobias Picker and Gene Scheer’s new opera Thérèse Raquin is distilled from Emile Zola’s late 19th-century novel (and, later, play) of the same title: Thérèse Raquin endures an unhappy and stifling existence living in Paris with her sickly husband Camille and his overbearing, coddling mother Madame Raquin. Thérèse conducts a passionate love affair with Camille’s former childhood friend and current office co-worker, Laurent, who is an aspiring artist with far more robust health and appetites than Camille. On an outing to the river, the three take a boat ride, and Laurent stages a “boating accident” that results in Camille’s death by drowning. Cut to Act Two and a year later: family friends beg Laurent to marry Thérèse so she will move beyond her grief over Camille’s death. Laurent “reluctantly” agrees, the two are married, their plan has succeeded! But the guilt they both feel over murdering Camille has destroyed their passion for each other—they can, in fact, barely stand to be in the same room together. Oh, and Camille’s ghost is haunting them. Madame Raquin overhears them talking about the murder and immediately suffers a stroke that completely paralyzes her: unable to move or speak, she compounds their feelings of guilt and paranoia by keeping them under her constant accusatory glare. One evening, during their weekly domino game with friends, Madame summons the will to write out the beginning of a sentence: “Thérèse and Laurent are…” Realizing that she plans to torture them with her knowledge of their guilt, Thérèse and Laurent take their own lives.

The plot, when recounted in such fashion, seems melodramatic or even soap operatic; for Zola, however, the story was a vehicle for experimentation in naturalistic writing, writing that examined human behavior and motivations with the same observant and scientific eye that a medical examiner might use in examining a corpse laid out upon an autopsy table. In the nineteenth century this was both new and controversial; critics found the novel pornographic, and audiences for the play were baffled by the stage realism and disgusted by the story’s content (it closed after just nine days). But Zola’s keen observations of human psychology and his complex characters give the novel and play an enduring appeal—in different ways, they provide detailed observations into the ways habit, personality, history, motivation, desire, and social circumstances shape the characters’ thinking and behavior. To my mind, the interest in this material lies less in its plot than in its dissection of the characters’ minds and bodies.

So it’s interesting to see this material imported into an operatic form, where such subtleties of character and psychology are expressed primarily through music (rather than language or physical expression). On the one hand, Picker’s modern score captures in a fascinating manner the psychological and emotional dissonance in which the main characters are trapped; on the other, the abstraction of the story into opera robs it of many of the nuances and details that make the original so fascinating. For example, Camille’s hypochondriacal wussiness is only signaled here, by a persistent cough; we don’t get a real sense of how much his whiny neediness (and his mother’s intrusiveness) drive the nervous Thérèse insane. The naturalistic impulse that nudged Zola’s story out of the realm of melodrama is necessarily absent in a form as clearly aestheticized as opera; what’s left is a rather sensationalized story of adultery, murder, and regret.

The production by Microscopic Opera Company (directed by Gregory Lehane) embraces the more abstracted storytelling, setting the action in a space dominated by a curtain of dismembered red mannequins and backgrounded by a large screen on which video of the characters (often in extreme closeup) is projected. The logic behind these images is not always clear, but they often serve to expand the narrative during “text-free” musical interludes. The vocal performances are generally very good: in particular, Katherine Drago is excellent in the challenging role of Thérèse, and Dimitrie Lazich  compelling and magnetic as Laurent. Anna Singer gives a powerful performance as Madame Raquin, and William Strom and Sean Donaldson help lighten the mood with their portrayal of the policeman Olivier and the bureaucrat Grivet.

A Skull in Connemara (which opened at PICT this past weekend and plays through September 28) offers a very different, blackly humorous exploration of guilt and its effect on the human soul and psyche.  One of the plays in Martin McDonagh’s “Leenane trilogy,” the play paints a decidedly non-naturalistic portrait of a small Irish community and the sins, failures, and rages of its inhabitants. At the heart of the story is Mick Dowd, who caused the death of his wife over seven years previously in a “drink-driving” accident. Others in the community suspect that the accident was something more sinister, and when the corner of the churchyard in which she is buried comes up in the rotation to be exhumed (to make way for new burials in the cramped cemetary), the disappearance of her remains brings new secrets to light. It would give away an important plot point to say more at this point, so I’ll leave it to my gentle readers to high themselves over to the Stephen Foster to see how the mystery unravels.

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From left: James Keegan as Mick, Sharon Brady as Maryjohnny, & Alec Silberblatt as Mairton in the PICT production of “A Skull in Connemara.” Photo courtesy of PICT; photographer: Suellen Fitzsimmons

In fact, however, the main interest in this play lies not in the whodunit or whydunit, but in its simultaneously loving and scathing depictions of small-town Irish characters, and in its darkly comic exploration of human desires and resentments. The play is brutally, acidly funny as it picks at the scabs of people who have little to live for now and even less to aspire towards in the future. And the production is the best of PICT’s season so far this year.  Under Martin Giles’s deft direction the ensemble creates a world of believable exaggeration in which the cruelest of actions is at once horrifying and hilarious. The design—sets by Gianni Downs, lights by Chris Popowich, costumes by Rachel S. Parent, and sound by Joe Pino—puts us in a world just a shade beyond the real into the cartoon, just right for the play’s own “blown-large” quality. The cast is terrific. James Keegan is marvelous as Mick Dowd, convincing as a man seemingly tough on the surface, but beset by demons underneath. Sharon Brady’s sour penurious Maryjohnny Rafferty is spot-on, and Alec Silberblatt brings a manic energy to the hapless young “eejit” Mairton Hanlon (although he seemed to struggle most with the accent work). As Thomas Hanlon, a cop who aspires to detective glory, Jason McCune rounds out the ensemble with a performance that goes just the right distance towards caricature.