Tobias Picker and Thérèse Raquin
I was talking with Tobias Picker about his opera Thérèse Raquin. Zola had used the idea of humors or temperaments to craft his characters and the novel was his “experiment” to see how these different humors would interact, in many ways reminiscent of Goethe’s Elective Affinities. I was curious if he had taken these ideas into consideration when he wrote the score as I thought they would be very suggestive of distinctive and recognizable musical style. He relied that he thought the Zola’s idea was not very interesting and he wanted to bring out a more “human” qualities in his characters.
Perhaps this accounts for the blandness of the score. Musically the work is broken into sections. Each one is musically interesting on their own, but they seem to rely heavily on the libretto for the structural connections. Several of the individual sections are musically interesting but the structure—static blocks set next to each other in a series allows little room for development. This severely hampers the dramatic movement of the opera. We have a series of moments, sometimes dramatic ones, but never climax. One might expect this from a bel canto construction, which also happens in blocks but the bel canto form creates enough drama within the blocks that a skillful composer can overcome the lack of development when the work is performed on the stage.
Compare to Mozart’s Figaro. Through the reduction of human complexity to simple ideas Mozart is able to create characters that are highly differentiated musically, which allows them to be more fully human. An even better example is Cosi fan tute where the musical differentiation becomes part of the plot and turns cartoons into complex and multidimensional characters. Wagner by musically associating characters with ideas, actions, objects and events through leitmotifs is able to create complex, yet comprehensible, environments of multiple characters. But we understand them as the music helps to supply the history to the characters and events we only see for a few hours.
It is curious that the work has included a variety of endings through its history. I think the original ending by Zola is by far the best and fits the original conception of Thérèse Raquin. The other endings all seem to miss the point or defeat the dramatic structure and direction.
“Thérèse took the glass, drank half of it, and gave it to Laurent, who finished it in one gulp. It was as quick as lightening. They fell on each other, struck down at instantly, and at last found consolation in death.”
—Émile Zola, Thérèse Raquin (1868)
“(She reveals the knife, holding it above her as if she wants to kill him. She stabs herself and falls into his arms.)
Laurent: Thérèse… Thérèse…
Thérèse: Kiss me… Kiss me…
(While he kisses her, she dies. He drinks the poisoned wine and dies instantly.)
—Libretto by Gene Scheer copyright 2000 Tobias Picker Music
“Thérèse approaches him and raises a knife but plunges it into herself instead. Laurent, overwhelmed, drinks the poison intended for Thérèse and embraces her as they both die.”
—Synopsis by Frederick E. Allen for the 2002 Chandos recording of the World Premiere at the Dallas Opera.
“She takes a knife from the cupboard and hides it in her skirt. Laurent enters and puts poison in a glass of wine, which he offers to Thérèse…”
—Program Synopsis by Gene Scheer for 19 February 2009 performance
- Zoladdiction: a Zola Reading Event in April (surgabukuku.wordpress.com)
- Therese Raquin (harrietdevine.typepad.com)
- Books on France 2013 Reading Challenge (surgabukuku.wordpress.com)