Operatic Oscar Wilde
When self-declared genius and renowned Irish aesthete Oscar Wilde made his famous tour of America in 1882, the front page of the San Francisco Examiner offered "A hearty hand of fellowship, My Brother, Poet, Friend!" Last Saturday, the Santa Fe Opera welcomed the conquering hero back to the States with a much bigger gesture, the world premiere of "Oscar" by composer Theodore Morrison and co-librettist John Cox.
Written for countertenor extraordinaire David Daniels, the compelling new work chronicles the last days Wilde spent with friends in England before his trial for gross indecency that resulted in a conviction and sentencing to two years’ hard labor and transfer to the notorious Reading Gaol. The story follows through his imprisonment and final release.
The Santa Fe Opera and Opera Company of Philadelphia co-commissioned and produced the splendid production, with support from donors including the Bob Ross Foundation. The message of "Oscar" and the timing of the premiere could not be more relevant today, while discrimination against sexual orientation persists amid growing signs of legal change and acceptance.
Morrison and Cox depict Wilde’s humanity and bravery in pioneering the new freedoms. They free him from victim status for his steadfast refusal to accept society’s ignorance. "I am the Love that dare not speak its name" is from the poem "Two Loves" by Lord Alfred Douglas (nicknamed Bosie), a love that Wilde deemed "the noblest of emotions." The pair openly consorted in London at a time when secrecy was necessary for survival.
History has been unclear about the motivations of the young and beautiful Bosie, but one fact remains: He hated his viciously bigoted father, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry. Bosie was arrogantly confident of his own security in society, so insisted that Wilde sue his father for libel after he called their relationship deviant. The subsequent reprisal against the author and playwright trapped him in a knot of politics, Victorian morals and judicial cruelty. The new opera reminds us of his essential goodness, and exalts the integrity of his sacrifice.
Wilde’s ideal of beauty may not have been realistic, but it was all-consuming, and it caused his downfall. He would not betray his truth. "Oscar" vindicates the homosexual icon and gives him a rightful place in the pantheon of immortals. The solid dramaturgy of Cox’s libretto flows from an illustrious directing career, and Morrison’s late start in composition (42) is crowned at age 75 with his brilliant first attempt at writing an opera. The score is assured and powerful, tender and achingly lyrical. The partnership’s combined talents yield some deeply moving moments, and provide a narrative arc that ends in a triumphant finale.
With the stunning backdrop of the high New Mexico desert surrounding the stage of the beautiful open-air Santa Fe Opera House, the production’s remarkable staging packed an impressive punch. It didn’t hurt when dramatic lightning flashes appeared in the distance.
Conductor Evan Rogister moved the responsive and sonorous orchestra briskly throughout the performance, with expert attention to the details of Morrison’s orchestral fabric, filled with effective punctuation marks, brief snatches of period melody and lovely motifs.
The cast was uniformly excellent, and tenor William Burden was especially effective as Wilde’s loyal friend Frank Harris, the irascible Irishman, American citizen and transatlantic journalist and publisher. His scenes comforting the wretched Wilde with kindness and fierce protectiveness were heartbreaking.
Soprano Heidi Stober played Ada Leverson (another writer, and Oscar’s adored "Sphinx") with a sweet and resolute sympathy. It was in Leverson’s nursery that Wilde resided until his trial, and the nursery setting gave director Kevin Newbury an opportunity for a coup de theatre when the toys came to life portraying the judge and jury in the farcical and distressing trial ending Act One.
Baritone Dwayne Croft played American poet Walt Whitman as a singing narrator. His performance was fine, but he couldn’t help seeming dry. Framing devices are useful, but they don’t add much character to a role.
In a clever stroke, Bosie became a silent dancing part. Reed Luplau looked right and moved with lithe agility, especially effective when dancing other images in Wilde’s imagination, but choreographer Sean Curran was often repetitious, and there were times when the movements simply looked unoriginal. Bass Kevin Burdette doubled as the Judge and Colonel Isaacson, Governor of Reading Gaol, with a chilling authority.
Infirmary patients David Blalock and Benjamin Sieverding lent heart-choking realism to their poignantly sung cameos. A fine moment of comic relief arose when they joined with Oscar for a rousing rendition of "Burlington Bertie from Bow."
Star attraction David Daniels was quoted recently as hoping Oscar would become the highlight of his career and add to the countertenor repertoire as well. Daniels has made the countertenor voice palatable to most listeners by now, even if some will probably never be sold. His phenomenal opening-night performance silenced the naysayers and even pre-performance critics, who actually faulted the composer for associating a high male voice with gayness. I would say it was not so much identifying the sound as gay, but accepting its queerness: as in atypical and unusual. It seemed an utterly appropriate choice to me, and Daniels can sing with plenty of full-throated strength when he needs to. His characterization was a little generalized at times, but the commitment to the exhausting task was obvious, and he made a spectacular success of the opening-night performance. We felt Oscar’s pain and confusion, and appreciated the resolve behind his fear.
The story ends with Oscar being inducted into the halls of immortality, and we worried it was about to take a pretentious turn when a jest punctured the pomposity. With the characteristic wit and spirit of Oscar Wilde, the opera ends with a smile.
Oscar plays Philadelphia next, but it would be a sin if he doesn’t make it back to San Francisco someday.