Opera Philadelphia delivers East Coast premiere of 'Oscar'

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
An opera bout Oscar Wilde? He would have loved the idea. David Daniels stars in "Oscar" in Philadelphia

Oscar Wilde might have said, as he did about books, that operas are "well-written, or badly written -- that is all." And he probably would have considered "Oscar," now receiving its East Coast premiere from Opera Philadelphia, to be well-written. I would, too.  

With a score by the once Baltimore-based Theodore Morrison, who joined John Cox in crafting the libretto, the work focuses on the downfall of the brilliant author of "The Picture of Dorian Gray," "The Importance of Being Earnest" and so much more. This is Wilde the martyr, prosecuted for "gross indecency" in Act 1, serving out a sentence to hard labor in Act 2. 

If "Oscar" doesn't fully satisfy, it certainly makes for an absorbing theatrical experience, thanks in no small measure to a staging designed with visual flair and visceral impact by David Korins, vibrantly costumed by David C. Woolard, and directed with admirable sweep by Kevin Newbury. (The piece is a co-commission and co-production of Opera Philadelphia and Santa Fe Opera, which hosted the world premiere in 2013.)

A sterling cast also helps, too, starting with countertenor David Daniels in the title role, a role written with him in mind.

Contemporary accounts of Wilde's speaking voice suggest it had an unusual, musical quality that quickly captured the attention. So a countertenor, a vocal type that cannot help but stand out, makes an apt choice for the opera. Daniels also happens to be a good fit physically to portray Wilde, so there's that.

Although he doesn't sing with all the freshness and ease of earlier years, Daniels remains a compelling artist. As he demonstrated on the opening night of "Oscar" at the Academy of Music, he can deliver every word with conviction, shape every phrase sensitively. And, for the most part, his acting is equally convincing.

The role of Lord Alfred ("Bosie") Douglas, the young man who changed Wilde's life forever, is given to a silent dancer, a la Tadzio in Britten's "Death in Venice." This Bosie is never far from Wilde's mind.

Reed Luplau performs Sean Curran's choreography with a potent mix of grace and insinuation. But even Luplau's fine technique is not enough to elevate a heavy-handed prison scene that involves a black-robed, skeletal-faced death figure who, surprise, surprise, is revealed to be Bosie -- the lowest point, dramatically speaking, in the production, verging on parody.

Conversely, the most potentially messy concept in the opera comes off rather brilliantly at the end of Act 1. Instead of a conventional trial scene, the wildest fantasy erupts involving a pop-goes-the-judge and various toys coming to life.

The carnival atmosphere surrounding Wilde's prosecution -- he is confined here to a dock that starts out as a baby crib -- delivers a genuine jolt. On the down side, the accused doesn't get anything significant to do during that scene.

It seems odd that the libretto does not include the most ready-for-music portion of the trial, Wilde's famous defense of "the love that dare not speak its name." There's a lot of underlining of the abuse and unfair treatment he endured in this opera, but not enough opportunity to hear Wilde stand up for himself and his creed. 

The author's constant, empathetic friends Ada Leverson and Frank Harris get a substantial presence in the opera, urging him to flee to France when there is still a chance and sticking with him after his incarceration. Soprano Heidi Stober does compelling work as Ada, with a penetrating tone and beautifully molded phrasing. William Burden makes a terrific Harris, the voice warm and supple, the acting nuanced.

Morrison and Cox chose to leave Wilde's circle of gay friends out of the opera. The pivotal Robbie Ross is particularly conspicuous by his absence. This has the effect of making Wilde seem more isolated than necessary. 

There is one other gay character, though, but he's not alive. That's the ghost of Walt Whitman, whose contributions include two spoken passages that provide a jarring note in the opera, for the unnecessary purpose of filling in historic tidbits and offering commentary.

Otherwise, the idea of the great gay American poet serving as spectral witness to the travesty and tragedy works well within this context, and it's a role wonderfully suited to Dwayne Croft, who makes every word count. (He asked the audience's indulgence on opening night because he had a cold, but the voice sounded firm and colorful throughout.)

Wayne Tigges uses his hale and vibrant bass-baritone to great effect as a cruel prison warden, but does he have to do the full Saturday matinee, silent movie-villain routine? Supporting roles are strongly filled, and the chorus makes a rich sound.

Conductor Evan Rogister shapes the score with great care and draws polished, even radiant playing from the orchestra.

The opera's essentially tonal music is deftly crafted by the septuagenarian Morrison, who came to composition late -- at the age of 42.

Previously, he was best known as a conductor and, in our corner of the world, as founder of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society in 1966 and its music director for 16 years (I could find no mention of his name on that organization's current website). Back in the day, Morrison also worked with the Baltimore Symphony, Peabody Conservatory and Pro Music Rara.

His writing in "Oscar" is strongest in the first act, which has a firm pulse and abundant instrumental color, nowhere more strikingly than in the surreal trial scene, when Morrison gives the orchestration a Prokofiev-like kick.

Throughout, the composer reveals an appreciation for age-old word-setting (a descending line for "fall," a rising one for "high") and for fitting well-sculpted melodic lines to voices. He also cannot resist -- how could he? -- tossing in some Handelian coloratura for Daniels, and the effect feels right.

In Act 2, the music loses steam and often settles into film score background, but there are still some vivid touches, especially involving portions of "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" intoned by the chorus. I am less convinced by the anachronistic use of a 1915 music hall song, "Burlington Bertie from Bow," sung by Oscar and other patients in the infirmary, but it turns into an oddly endearing scene.

The finale is a let-down, partly because so much of it involves the chorus repeating exclamations of the name "Oscar."

Worse is the line that Wilde ends up having to utter from "Vera, or the Nihilists," his first, widely ignored play: "For myself, the only immortality I desire is to invent a new sauce." Of all the things he ever wrote, that has to be least likely, least effective epitaph. (For an opera about Rossini, perfect.)

Still, there is much to admire in "Oscar," starting with an opening that cleverly segues from actual applause in the house (for the arrival of the conductor) to a curtain speech by Wilde, as if this were the opening night of "Lady Windemere's Fan."

In those few quick moments, the personality of the complex central character, as well as of the music, is neatly established. It's very easy from that point to be drawn into the disheartening drama that unfolds as Wilde confronts hate and fate on his way to immorality.

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If you go

The remaining performances of "Oscar" are at 8 p.m. Friday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust streets, Philadelphia. Call 215-893-1018, or go to operaphila.org.