Opera Philadelphia has made an admirable committment to commissioning and performing new opera. They have programmed two new works this season and are developing more for the future. One reason this is admirable is because it comes with great risk: the road to successful new operas is littered with unsuccessful new operas. Unfortunately I must put their current production, Oscar, into the latter category. Based on the final years of Oscar Wilde’s life, the opera was previously seen at Santa Fe but is now receiving its regional premiere, again with David Daniels in the title role. But it is not a satisfying work. Theodore Morrison’s bland, anonymous music fails to elevate Morrison and John Cox’s uneven hagiography of a libretto.
Theodore Morrison, Oscar. Philadelphia premiere, Opera Philadelphia, 2/6/15. Directed by Kevin Newbury, sets by David Korins, costumes by David Woolard, lights by Rick Fisher, conducted by Evan Rogister with David Daniels (Oscar Wilde), Heidi Stober (Ada Leverson), William Burden (Frank Harris), Dwayne Croft (Walt Whitman), Reed Lupalau (Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas), Wayne Tigges (Justice/Isaacson), lots more.
The opera begins with Wilde–or Oscar, as this chummy libretto calls him–already convicted but awaiting the reading of his charges and his sentence. The first act is largely static, with Wilde confined by public opprobrium to a nursery in his friend Ada Leverson’s house. The second act finds him imprisoned, subject to inhumane treatment by the obligatory sadistic prison guard, and finally a brief scene shows him in Paris. We are guided through the plot by the specter of Walt Whitman, who occasionally reads from Wilde’s Wikipedia entry (not really, but that’s what it sounds like) and Wilde’s lover Bosie, played by a dancer in the opera’s most obvious gesture to Britten’s Death in Venice.
The story of Oscar Wilde’s fall from wit to prisoner is a compelling one (particularly if we include Salome along the way), but it’s not the story this opera tells. Wilde is solely a noble martyr, no wit involved, and the result is not very interesting. Wilde’s trial and sentence on charges of “gross indecency” was an outrage, and one he suffered with as much dignity as one could. But as a story the opera is broadly drawn and obvious. The other characters are either deeply sympathetic friends of Oscar who want to save him (these include Leverson and local tenor Frank Harris as well as a friendly prison guard) or they are sadists who want to see him suffer (the jailor, the judge, various short roles). It’s not just black and white, it’s also that the only available character attributes are goodness, sympathy, and evil, all defined vis à vis attitudes toward Oscar.
It seems ridiculous to write a Wilde opera with no more than a few one-liners and the drama relies too much on telling rather than showing. I’m not sure if writing faux-Wilde would be advisable (and this libretto sounds thoroughly American, a single random Cockney prison guard excepted), but why eliminate the voice that made him famous? This voice and his downfall have already coexisted in Moises Kaufmann’s play Gross Indecency: The Trials of Oscar Wilde, but the opera prefers a cardboard saint who says things like “I am moved by your chivalry and nobility as a friend.”
When Wilde’s writing does appear (a letter to Bosie, a setting of a bit of The Ballad of Reading Gaol), it is immediately obvious for its razor-sharp command and intensity. But the libretto isn’t without some moments of dramatic possibility itself: the moment when nursery’s toys come to life to reenact part of his trial (why the majority of it is related by Frank rather than seen is less clear), and the scenes of Wilde performing his pointless labor and later conversing with a guard in the prison infirmary. Unfortunately the finale, in which Wilde is promoted into immortality like a reverse Don Giovanni, is just ridiculous.
But whatever the libretto an opera lives or dies based on its score, and on that account Oscar disappoints. Morrison’s music never creates dramatic momentum and leaves the libretto’s bold, contrasting colors in wan pastels. It’s tonal and the words are fairly easy to understand, and it is mostly content to simply be pleasant. Morrison relies nearly exclusively on ostinato accompaniments (very short patters repeated over and over) to create tension and the effect becomes monotonous. The vocal writing is angular and, perhaps inspired by Daniels, involves some baroque coloratura. Daniels gets some big solo moments, notably an aria about beauty in Act 1 and one beginning with baroque-like waves in Act 2, and these moments of stillness, along with some of the choruses, are much more rewarding than the dialogue. The orchestration is playable but unmemorable. (Many contemporary opera composers are absolutely brilliant orchestrators—Adès and Benjamin, just to name two—so this really sticks out, perhaps disproportionately.) It is, in all, a very modest, unambitious score and never makes a big impression.
This project is a labor of love for Daniels. His Wilde suffers nobly but mopes endlessly, surely the fault of the material but nonetheless a problem. His countertenor audibly separates him from all the voices surrounding him (and if only there had been some kind of major concertante using this with the prisoners in Act 2!) and he can sing with great directness and sincerity, even though the tone sometimes sounds very thin. Of the cast I liked Heidi Stober’s high soprano best. Not only is her tone clear and precise, she also sang with a beautiful range of color and dynamic range, and she’s a good actress too. William Burden’s sense of line is not as fine but his tenor still is easy and sweet–alas his character, Frank Harris, was so boring despite being repeatedly described as “rowdy.” Wayne Tigges boomed menacingly as the judge and prison chief. As Walt Whitman, Dwayne Croft spoke nearly as much as he sang, but he did sound fine. Conductor Evan Rogister kept excellent balance between voices and orchestra (this is one advantage of Morrison’s orchestration) and kept things moving relatively quickly.
As Bosie, Reed Luplau dances very prettily in somewhat balletic fashion (the choreography is by Seán Curran), but the effect isn’t quite enough to convince me of the transcendent power of beauty, probably because the dances seem more like interludes than dramatic development. Kevin Newbury’s production is efficient and classy, doing a lot of realistic scene-setting with a single set of looming walls, from a library in the opening to the cluttered nursery to the dreary prison. It all moves seamlessly and the blocking and direction of the singers does as much as it can. There is, unfortunately, only so much it can do.
Opera Philadelphia’s next new opera will be Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, music by David Schnyder and starring Lawrence Brownlee, in June. Next season will include, as already announced, Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain, also starting at Santa Fe this summer.
Photos copyright Opera Philadelphia/Kelly & Massa.