Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Oscar at Santa Fe

Oscar at Santa Fe Opera

Charlene Baldridge
Photo by Ken Howard

Monday, August 12, we saw the first in our weeklong glut of five Santa Fe Opera productions. A co-commission and co-production of Santa Fe Opera and Opera Philadelphia (where it will be seen in 2015), the world premiere of composer Theodore Morrison’s Oscar, with text by John Cox and Morrison, is based on quotations from the writings of Oscar Wilde. The final performance at Santa Fe is August 17.
Reed Luplau and David Daniels
Photo by Ken Howard
“Pain, unlike pleasure, wears no mask...” (From Wilde’s great De Profundis) is the quote that more than any other affected and early on set the tone for this listener; because this particular story of Wilde’s life is set during his last few years, when he was indeed sorrowful and, during his cruel imprisonment for gross indecency, brought low with humility, finally ennobled (at least in Morrison and Cox’s work) in the human sense.

Dwayne Croft as Walt Whitman
Any composer and librettist is blessed to receive such a meticulously prepared premiere. American opera companies, especially Santa Fe with its long tradition, are dedicated to this. Oscar conductor Evan Rogister’s involvement with his players, his principals and his company is extraordinary. His feet are planted firmly in the pit, and one can tell that he and all those involved are supremely dedicated to the text, the message and the music, beautifully orchestrated with melodic richness and an especially poignant use of the cello. Oscar is a wondrous, moving experience on all these levels.
Daniels and Burdette
All photos by Ken Howard

Kevin Newbury directs the production enacted on David Korins’ versatile industrial set, a feature of which is a not overused spiral staircase that rises from the traps with Wilde aboard. Lighting designer is Rick Fisher. David C. Woolard creates stunning and surprising period costumes, including Wilde’s delicious red velvet jacket and rust breeches and a series of disguises for the tacit and handsome dancer who portrays Bosie.

Choreographer Seán Curran affords dancer Reed Luplau a vocabulary all his own in his enigmatic portrayal of Bosie. Whether he and his personae, which include Death, are benevolent or not is left to the eye and heart of the beholder.

Renowned countertenor David Daniels portrays Wilde, using his miraculous vocal (God, what beauty!) and acting gifts to deliver a poignant portrait. On the eve of his final court trial, in an absinthe-drenched series of scenes, Wilde’s great friend Ada (“Sphinx”) Leverson (soprano Heidi Stober), a novelist who has hidden Wilde in her daughter’s nursery, urges him to flee England in a yacht Harris (much-admired tenor William Burden) has arranged.
William Burden as Frank Harris
David Daniels as Oscar
All photos by Ken Howard

These scenes, rife with melody, a trio and duets, are the opera’s best. Wilde, who says there is no consolation like that of returning to childhood, thinks of his own sons and also a conversation with his mother, and decides to remain and fight.

Act II is set in Reading Prison and introduces the unbending, sadistic prison governor, Col. Isaacson (impressive bass Kevin Burdette, also cast as the trial judge), his more benevolent warder, Thomas Martin (baritone Ricardo Rivera), and the prisoners, who sing a wonderfully composed, obligatory chorus. It isn’t until Harris effects Isaacson’s removal that Wilde, confined in solitary, is allowed writing materials that allow him to write his great epistle, De Profundis. After his release he wrote the poem titled The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

David Daniels, Heidi Stober and William burden

Some may find Oscar and its denouement melodramatic and overwrought. I found it inspirational, redemptive, moving, musically fine, and well realized. The opera presents a picture of the tempered and more humane Wilde, whose work, just under the surface, was always profound and wise and way ahead of its time. Just consider A Woman of No Importance, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Earnest, or De Profundis. Now we have Oscar to complement what we already know about the man from works about him, including the film Wilde and Moisés Kaufman’s stage play Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.

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