Like the unwieldy storm clouds that had gathered and burst overhead all week, the July 27 premiere of Oscar at the Santa Fe Opera aimed for catharsis. With its stellar cast, elaborate sets and massive orchestra, Theodore Morrison's opera, based on the tragic final years of playwright Oscar Wilde's life, was both a brave and uncannily apt commission for the company. At least it seemed so on paper.
The emotionally charged news-cycle of current human rights advocacies may have subliminally but too obviously shaped Wilde's operatic persona into a persecuted martyr for the cause of gay liberation. Amidst the ensuing hero-worship, however, any intention to capture his complex real life character proved as elusive as trying to bottle New Mexican lightning.
Completing his first opera at age 75, veteran composer Morrison, along with his co-librettist, the eminent opera director John Cox, may have loved Oscar not wisely but too well.
The brilliant, flamboyant, mesmerizing, prideful, reckless and self-destructive Oscar Wilde that the world has come to know is here entirely missing in action; his exuberant and at times dark character attenuated by selective revelation and adoring obfuscation. Wilde emerges as just a man in a jam named Oscar, sans his brilliant theatrical wit and scintillating personality.
The opera resembles a tragic oratorio without much in the way of real conflict. Act I begins just before the infamous guilty verdict in Wilde's sham trial for sodomy. Act II continues with his sentence of two years' hard labor at Reading Gaol. The Wilde we encounter is in the first act a fatalistic victim of a cruel legal system and in the second a passive victim of a cruel prison system. The ensuing journey from point A to point A' leaves no room to unfold a dramatic arc.
Characters are often defined by description at the cost of engaging drama. Live action segments are sparse, giving way to reflection, memory and narration. (No less than one half of the libretto consisted of excerpted works with observations by Wilde and his circle of literary friends). When in an active mode, however, the opera did come alive in isolated scenes. Under such limiting overall circumstances, Kevin Newbury's imaginative and empathetic direction compensated for many of the inherent weaknesses in the opera.
The title role was written for countertenor David Daniels, who acted and sang through a long evening in as compelling, fresh and pliant a voice as this writer has ever heard from him. His doomed character was, however, on an internalized journey from humiliation to a purification of soul with few signposts from which to measure progress.
Along that way Oscar existed sometimes in the real world, where various characters interact with him, and sometimes in his projected fantasies, most often those of his beloved Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, portrayed here in a silent role by the supple dancer, Reed Luplau, as imaginatively choreographed by Seán Curran. Bosie was the doppelganger of both soothing reveries and tormenting nightmares, transforming from a life energy into an image of death. Bosie's presence was introduced in the orchestra by a lovely cello theme. But his non-singing role too often cast him as a decorative cameo rather than an interactive actor.
Oscar's refuge in the home nursery room of novelist and loyal friend Ada "Sphinx" Leverson (sympathetically portrayed by soprano Heidi Stober in the opera's only female role), accompanied by their journalist friend Frank Harris (another solid outing by SFO tenor William Burden) provided much-needed dramatic dialogue, even if its mission to convince the doomed Wilde to flee England was foreordained to failure.
Likewise, a second act encounter in the prison infirmary (featuring tenor David Blalock and bass Benjamin Sieverding) gave rise to a touching interaction between Wilde's wounded and humbled sophisticate and the two unschooled but intuitively wise fellow-travelling patients. It was the single most moving scene in the opera.
Less effective was Wilde's interaction with the cardboard villainy of Governor of Reading Gaol Colonel Isaacson (hollow-cheeked bass Kevin Burdette), whose malice was dramatically too brief to be anything more malevolent than short-term bluster. (Where was Cool Hand Luke's Strother Martin when this opera needed him?)
David Korins' grand-scaled sets served effectively as heavenly halls and horrible prisons, but his big surprise was an imaginative set piece at the end of Act I, where the safety of Ada's nursery room morphed in Oscar's tortured mind into the hated courtroom, its harmless toys becoming menacing accusers, its crib a jail cell, and its jack-in-the-box a jeering judge spitting out Wilde's guilt as it bobbed mockingly side by side.
David C. Woolard's delirious costuming added colorful heft to the surreal moment, just as his Victorian-period costumes had supported the veracity of other scenes. The distorted nursery trope had resonance in Bosie's recurring image as the source of both Wilde's adoration and downfall. The things he had assumed safe had in fact become fatal.
Substituting for a scarcity in dramatic conflict was the ill-conceived conceit of a prologue and epilogue bookending the opera's two acts and featuring a heavenly Walt Whitman (the emphatic baritone Dwayne Croft) who, in his more corporeal days had met Wilde on his American tour of 1882. Speaking from the Halls of Immortality, Whitman assured the audience in their humble seats of mortality that Oscar's greatness would ultimately be rewarded. This foreknowledge collapsed Wilde's trials and tribulations on stage into a ritualized road trip to beatification.
Had the real Wilde known so trite a dramatic device as this latter-day deus ex machina would be employed in his rescue, he would likely have demurred at departing his honest grave. Coming to praise Wilde, Whitman's presence embalmed a complex and contradictory character with saintly immortality and buried him in the soil of blandness.
It wasn't as if the creative team that devised Oscar lacked an abundance of incident in the playwright's life from which to draw. There was, for instance, his surprising triumph in 1882 as a lecturer on aesthetics to rapt cowboys and miners in America's Wild West. A decade later came the flamboyant and dangerous period of Wilde's double life as celebrated playwright of London's West End and obsessive denizen of its dangerous underworld. There was potential for the interactive frisson of conversation between Wilde and his fatal attraction, Bosie, the sunshine lover who egged on an unnecessary trial but then fled when the consequences became too hot to handle. Finally, the enticing opportunity to adapt the real trial was available on the historical record, and offered a verbatim account of Wilde's rapier wit almost winning the day against the Marquess of Queensbury's dogged determination to destroy him.
Such incidents could have made for a blood-curdling evening at the opera, but all were missed opportunities left on the creative floor of Oscar.
The ruminating drama had no such lumbering counterpart in the evening's skillful vocal lines and effective instrumental music. Given the opera's dramatic passivity and episodic structure, Morrison's orchestra spoke in a surprisingly active voice with clean and crisp textures. From its cinematic opening in big, bold statements, ably executed in the hands of conductor Evan Rogister, it was a colorful and alternatingly soulful or aggressive presence. Its language was conservatively tonal but well-crafted and accented with heavy dissonances that could on occasion test atonal boundaries. Powerful choral passages in the prison scene and earlier, ably prepared by chorus master Susanne Sheston, revealed the composer's long mastery in this idiom. Especially effective also was his use of brass choirs, the latter creating colors with the winds that could be ejaculatory in their mockery, wrenchingly dissonant in agonized lower brass legatos and bracing in the trumpet stabs of prison cruelties. The orchestral virtuosity confirmed the septuagenarian Morrison's passing comment in one of the many panel meetings before the premiere that all his previous music had been "juvenilia."
Playwright Oscar Wilde cautioned his audiences in The Importance of Being Earnest that truth is rarely pure and never simple. It is unlikely that the author of such later shocking live-action operas as Salome, A Florentine Tragedy and Der Zwerg would have approved, even at the sake of an unflattering portrayal, the well-intentioned but severely censored realization of his character in Oscar.
That said, there was still much to savor in this premiere.
Above photo by Ken Howard used by permission of Santa Fe Opera.
Rodney Punt can be contacted at Rodney@ArtsPacifica.net