11 August 2013

Santa Fe Opera 2013: Morrison’s ‘Oscar,’ or the Importance of Not Being Too Earnest

Not guilty: David Daniels as Wilde in Gaol.
This and all photos by Ken Howard, courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

Theodore Morrison’s Oscar comes to the stage of the Santa Fe Opera Festival with such good intentions, such an interesting back story, such timely subject matter, and such an opera-worthy central figure (you can’t have Strauss’ Salome without Oscar Wilde, after all) that one really wants to like the piece. Indeed, there’s much to admire in this world premiere production, particularly in the score and in the orchestrations.

But with a badly structured, often tedious libretto and an overwhelming excess of earnestness, Oscar left me quibbling. Surely Wilde was not that great a genius, I found myself thinking, though I’m enough of a fan that in college I took on the challenge of staging Salome (quite badly, I admit). And while he was unquestionably a martyr, Wilde has always struck me as a poor role model for proud gays — though that’s very much the way that Morrison and his co-librettist, John Cox, present him.

By the time we reach the opera’s finale, patience evaporates. Wilde is portrayed as increasingly saintly over the course of two acts: the concluding scene is nothing less than his apotheosis. He’s welcomed into Immortality by a chorus of white-gowned, golden-haired worthies. I had to hold my nose to keep from laughing.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the over-earnestness of Oscar and the degree to which this undermines the opera as a whole. For all its merits, Morrison’s score isn’t sufficiently compelling to overcome the flaws in the libretto, and even a smart, good-looking production, staged by Kevin Newbury and featuring stellar performances from William Burden, Heidi Stober, Dwayne Croft, Kevin Burdette, and in the title role, David Daniels, can’t salvage the evening.

The tragic hero’s choice: Ada Leverson (Heidi Stober)
and Frank Harris (William Burden) try to save Wilde.

Morrison is in his mid-seventies, and Oscar is his first opera, a certifiable labor of love brought to fruition in one of the most prestigious venues on earth. He waited a long time for this, and again, one wants to root for him and his work. Always tonal, always appropriate to the emotional tenor of the scenes, his music bears the influence of Stravinsky and Weill (that I noticed) — but he seems to have a short attention span, moving on to new ideas before he’s fully developed the theme at hand. In Act II, where we shift from biography to hagiography, he proved unable to sustain my interest: I confess I nodded off a few times.

Oscar seems at all times to be uncertain what it is and what it wants to do — beyond elevating Wilde to heights where he can’t breathe. Thus in Act I we get an almost Odets-like, realistic scene in the children’s nursery of Ada Leverson (Stober), complete with mundane hellos and chitchat, that leads to a psychologically revealing conversation about Oscar’s future: should he face trial, honorably, or should he flee England? A vision of his lover, Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (who has scarpered off to safety, and who is eloquently embodied by the dancer Reed Luplau, in choreography by Seán Curran) persuades Oscar to make his tragic choice — whereupon the toys in the nursery come to life and enact the trial.

This scene, the finale of Act I, is about as Brechtian as you can get, and in many respects it’s the highlight of the entire opera and its justification as a work for the stage. It also provides an extraordinary spotlight for the indispensable Kevin Burdette, as the judge — here, a jack-in-the-box. And yet in turn this scene casts unfavorable light on Act II, where Burdette plays the governor of Reading Gaol, in this telling a cartoon villain less credible than Snidely Whiplash.

Victorianisches Verfremdungseffekt:
About as Brechtian as you can get.

Indeed, overstatement is a problem throughout this opera. In the opening sequence, the Marquess of Queensbury’s minions (Aaron Pegram and Rocky Sellers) effectively blacklist Wilde from every hotel in London, warning desk clerks of reprisals and calling out the poet: “Bugger! Queer!” Had they appeared only in this scene, they would have made their point — but they keep coming back, in other guises, always calling out nasty names. It’s a struggle not to shout back, “I get it already!”

Fortunately, Burdette and Pegram also play bad guys in The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein at Santa Fe this season, so we know (if we didn’t already) that they’re capable of better. Stober and Burden (as Frank Harris) turn in thoroughly credible, beautifully sung performances in better-written scenes, but Croft is left to fend for himself.

He plays the ghost of Walt Whitman, functioning much as Che Guevara does in Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Evita, though at least in this case our narrator is known to have met our protagonist. Accounts of the meeting of Wilde and Whitman are fascinating, leaving a reader to wonder who was fooling whom. Here, Whitman is an ardent booster, and he provides background information better left to program notes.*

Most troubling is the voice type. Wilde is written for countertenor, the only one in this opera, in order to signal his otherness. But Whitman, who was just as “other” as Wilde, is written for baritone. Croft sings as well as I’ve ever heard him, but to no avail.

And so we come to Wilde himself. Openly flamboyant but not more, he was married and a father of two who fought back when he was accused of being a “somdomite” (as the misspelled note from the Marquess claimed — one of the only minute details missing from the libretto) rather than admitting his true nature. The opera finds him discovering compassion in Reading Gaol as he listens to two thieves (hello, Jesus?) and proclaiming a newfound mission once he’s liberated. Historically, of course, he never pursued any such mission. He led the remaining short years in squalor, exile, and attempted anonymity. But no matter! He’s a hero! A saint!

The trial scene, with Kevin Burdette
as Mr. Justice Sir Alfred Wills.

Certainly the scenes between Daniels and Luplau (whose Bosie takes on several guises, including that of Death) elicit the still-novel frisson of recognition for gay men who watch this opera, especially now, when the rights of couples are being recognized in so many parts of the United States. Yes, you think, that’s a relationship not entirely unlike my own, right up there on the stage where I’m accustomed to seeing nobody but men and women. Yet Oscar and Bosie’s love is never depicted with sufficient truth or feeling to move beyond what amounts to titillation.

This takes nothing away from Daniels’ performance, which is fully committed and sung with warmth and character. He’s onstage almost constantly, and one certainly admires his dedication. (And stamina!) Among the qualities that set him apart — and on the path to superstardom — at the start of his career, was his burnished, heroic virility, even while he sang in “feminine” registers, and he accentuated that by keeping a scruffy beard. Here, the beard is shaven clean away, the better to look like Wilde. But no razor, nor even his acting, nor even his dancing (in the best of the sequences with Bosie) can save this character or this opera.

We are talking about Oscar Wilde here, aren’t we? Well, no. Not really. It’s striking that, beyond the structure and aims of the libretto, Morrison and Cox fail at what might have been expected to be the easiest task: somehow they manage to quote liberally from their historical sources with barely a trace of wit. (For that, you think, Wilde might sue for libel — and win.) Oscar gets off one epigram, at the end of the opera, and while it’s welcome in the circumstance, it’s too late to do much good.

Evan Rogister conducts with the utmost sympathy, and he provides a driving force that the score itself lacks. David Korins’ set design is best in its discovery of the visual parallels between a Victorian library and a Victorian prison. David C. Woolard’s costumes are hit and miss, gorgeous in the case of Leverson’s gown, ingenious in the case of the toy jury, but downright ugly in the case of Wilde’s purple jacket and pearl-white overcoat, and nearly ludicrous in the case of the angelic Immortals.

It’s because of that immortality that Whitman wears a pale-cream suit. Yet ultimately, it doesn’t matter that Whitman looks like Mark Twain: we’re watching an opera about historical figures, in which truth has nothing to do with anything. Oscar is, as Wilde might put it, a trivial opera about serious people.

Theodore Morrison’s Oscar plays again August 12 and 17.
It’s unlikely you’ll get another opportunity to hear it. For more information and tickets, click here.

NOTE: Fort Worth Opera fans will want to know that tenor David Blalock sings one of the prisoners in Act II. He does so with a clear, open voice and great style — of course.

*I’m reminded of director Lee Blakeley’s decision to set Santa Fe’s new production of The Grand Duchess in the United States. Is there some prevailing belief that Santa Fe audiences won’t find a story compelling if there’s not something American in it? If so, then I’ve all the more reason to be grateful that La Donna del Lago isn’t depicted as a Laker Girl.

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