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Opera Philadelphia

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Heidi Stober as Ada Leverson and David Daniels in the title role of Theodore Morrison's Oscar at Opera Philadelphia
© Opera Philadelphia | Photo by Kelly & Massa
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Dwayne Croft as Walt Whitman
© Opera Philadelphia | Photo by Kelly & Massa
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Dancer Reed Luplau as Lord Alfred Douglas
© Opera Philadelphia | Photo by Kelly & Massa

Opera Philadelphia, which is presenting new American works seasonally, co-commissioned Oscar, the opera by composer Theodore Morrison and librettist John Cox that had its world premiere at Santa Fe in July 2013 (see OPERA NEWS, Nov. 2013). For the opera’s run in Philadelphia, the production team made several changes to score, words and physical staging. Oscar now begins with the rapturous curtain call and poised speech Wilde gave at the opening of Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1892 — a sound decision, as it shows the playwright’s wit and social stature before the trials leading to his imprisonment and destruction.

The five strong principals — David Daniels (Oscar Wilde), William Burden (Frank Harris), Heidi Stober (Ada Leverson), Dwayne Croft (Walt Whitman) and dancer Reed Luplau (Lord Alfred Douglas, a.k.a. “Bosie”) — all carried over from the Santa Fe premiere for this first East Coast production, as did conductor Evan Rogister. Rogister got sterling work from the busy percussion, timpani, solo cello and harp if hardly — at the third performance on February 11 — from the brass section. Rogister supported the singers well — including the chorus, who get some of Morrison’s best music, evoking Billy Budd. Another trace of Britten is the deployment of a dancer as a love object — as in the Tadzio–Aschenbach relationship in Death in Venice. It’s the fault of neither choreographer Seán Curran nor of the gifted, expressive Luplau that the device that works so well in Venice is ultimately frustrating in Oscar: it literally renders mute some potential dramatic conflicts in the fraught relationship between Wilde and his betrayer, Bosie.

Oscar contains several powerful and moving moments, particularly in its second half; both text and staging tend to go off the rails when the opera aspires to be (in Tony Kushner’s phrase) A Gay Fantasia — the trial-scene-amidst-giant-nursery-toys and the dead Whitman’s parlando narration are notable misfires. Since Santa Fe, director Kevin Newbury, Cox and costumer David C. Woolard have wisely simplified, visually and verbally, the apotheosis-like finale, when Wilde accepts literary immortality. Given Daniels’s charm in the moment, it worked for the Academy of Music’s audience.

The American countertenor, onstage all night, was in very good form, acing the middle–register coloratura runs and well-articulated legato lines that Morrison (one of his former teachers) shaped for him. Wilde scholars might dispute the character Morrison and Cox created, but Daniels surely fulfilled their intentions with gusto and winning conviction. Croft’s mature, oaken baritone sounded very healthy, and soprano Stober sang freshly and musically, generating sympathy as Wilde’s loyal, witty friend. Burden, as in so many contemporary American works, proved utterly outstanding in diction and nuanced acting; Morrison captured a portrait of Burden’s high-flying, plaintive tenor in crafting Harris’s fearsomely difficult music. Wayne Tigges’s timbral roughness suited the “hanging” judge better than the Reading Gaol ghastly warden Isaacson. Director Newbury sent Tigges over the top, with a characterization evoking a Nazi Gauleiter inches from self-parody.

The singers in the many episodic roles (another structural link to Death in Venice) all performed with spirit. Outstanding vocally among them were Curtis-trained singers Jarrett Ott, a cultivated baritone and Thomas Shivone, a sepulchral bass-baritone, playing Wilde’s fellow residents in the prison infirmary. The infirmary scene proves key in Cox tracing Wilde’s increasing empathy for the unfortunate, reinforcing the opera’s notion of him as an idealist and human rights pioneer. The issues explored have hardly vanished — one reason why, even if Oscar seems unlikely to become a repertory piece, it deserves more contemporary showings. spacer



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