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The Importance of Opera Philadelphia: ‘Oscar’ Review

Operatoonity.com review: Oscar presented by Opera Philadelphia; a co-commission and co-production with The Sante Fe Opera
Live performance: Sunday, February 15, 2015
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA
Music: Theodore Morrison
Text: John Cox and Theodore Morrison
Photos: Courtesy of Opera Philadelphia

4.0 stars

And the Oscar goes to . . . Opera Philadelphia!

It may be Oscar Weekend across the globe, but for the last two weekends, Opera Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love’s preeminent opera company, deserves an Oscar for offering the East Coast premiere of a new American opera of the same name, co-commissioned and co-produced with The Sante Fe Opera.

Oscar’s production values were exquisite. Philadelphia audiences were treated to a world-class performance by arguably the world’s most outstanding and in-demand countertenor David Daniels. But most importantly, a new American production was ushered into the repertoire–one with heft, musical beauty, and promise for a fresh new future for opera, one that isn’t reliant on tasteless regietheatre-style regurgitations of classic operas or endless reproductions of La Traviata.

Countertenor David Daniels played the title role of Oscar Wilde in a role written for him. Photo | Opera Philadelphia.

As a new production, as new productions are wont to be, the show itself had some imperfections, which is why I gave it four stars. While it was a noble choice to paint Wilde as a tragic hero, the parts of Wilde’s life highlighted in Oscar combine to recreate a sort of grim limbo.  From time immemorial, “new” productions have been refined or reworked based on audience and or critics’ reactions. While Theodore Morrison’s music was resonantly and refreshingly melodic, the overall tone of the show itself needed a little polishing and more seamless integration, as if Morrison and Cox couldn’t decide what kind of show it was supposed to be. Oscar is alternately a despairing commentary on insufferably rigid Victorian mores and occasionally broadly satirical while very rarely bright. Agreed, dehumanization and imprisonment of human beings because of their sexual preferences aren’t the stuff of uplifting subject matter.

While Oscar effectively showcased the stain of intolerance on humanity, it rarely conveyed Wilde’s bright and often biting wit. Wilde himself used humor to lampoon societal values during Queen Victoria’s time. Yet, there are only glimmers of his comedic genius in the libretto, lines such as, “Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder.” The broad satire of Wilde’s trial to close Act I was nothing short of a tour de force:

The satirical representation of Wilde’s trial for indecency was a stellar scene in Oscar but also sadly creepy. Photo | Opera Philadelphia

However, irony might have also served this production. Generations of theatregoers derived intense pleasure and entertainment from a beloved playwright’s public genius but reveled in the condemnation of the same man’s private proclivities.  With such an unrelentingly dark treatment, more brightness would have made the dark scenes that more impactful. One broadly satirical scene does not an eye-popping production make.

Baritone Dwayne Croft sings the role of the ghost of Walt Whitman. Photo | Opera Philadelphia

One of the show’s welcome devices was making a narrator out of the ghost of American poet Walt Whitman, who sets the scene for the drama. Whitman met Oscar Wilde during his 1882 American tour but had passed away by the time Wilde reached the height of his fame. This from-the-grave commentary intrigued. Whitman ellipses the time between the premiere of  Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan and his prosecution for “gross indecency.” Again, a bit more of Wilde’s life as the toast of London would have made his fall from grace that more deeply felt.

Baritone Dwayne Croft was perfect in the role of Whitman, which required an immortal grace, and he was equal to the task in voice and presence.

Without equivocation, the writers drove home Wilde’s obsession with his young lover Bosie. Making Oscar Wilde’s young lover a non-speaking balletic role was an inspired device, lending the production a welcome elegance and beauty.

As Bosie, Reed Luplau, a dancer from Western Australia, made a stunning Opera Philadelphia debut. Seán Curran’s choreography fit Luplau like a kid glove as Luplau dipped and glided into Wilde’s reverie, evoking the Irish-born playwright’s tortured longing for a sheerly lovely young man, whose father, the Marquess of Queensbury, was committed to Wilde’s downfall. 

Australian dancer Reed Luplau as “Bosie” was the essence of sensual elegance. Photo | Opera Philadelphia

The roles of Ada Leverson and Frank Harris were expertly sung by soprano Heidi Stober and tenor William Burden, a standout from last season’s Silent Night. Both performers valiantly endeavored to make their mark but were unfortunately burdened (pun wholly intended) by three very slow-moving scenes. While it is a time-honored operatic technique to comment on action that has occurred earlier, such as Frank’s infamous luncheon parties in the old days or Whitman’s devolution into poverty at his end, it’s not necessarily the most dramatically punchy technique.

Soprano Heidi Stober and tenor William Burden sang the roles of Wilde’s loyal friends. Photo | Opera Philadelphia

So, the show overall is flawed, but Opera Philadelphia’s execution was just about flawless. One can’t underestimate the value of their partnership with The Sante Fe Opera on this endeavor. These co-productions turn out to be much greater than the sum of their resources. Ingenious sets; world-class performances; inspired direction, lighting, and costumes are just a few values that one can expect when companies cooperate rather than compete. A very capable Opera Philadelphia orchestra conducted by Evan Rogister in his Opera Philadelphia debut showcased the compelling musical voices Morrison has created to tell the story, without overwhelming the singers.

The privations of jail led to Wilde’s deteriorating health and early death. Photo | Opera Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia is taking on important work and more than a little risk with works like Oscar. They are informing and shaping the landscape of new American opera and will continue to do so with this season’s Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD and next season with another East Coast premiere of Cold Mountain by Jennifer Higdon and Gene Scheer.  And the entire opera firmament is better and stronger for their daring to reach beyond what is known and comfortable.

 

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