The life of Oscar Wilde spiraled quickly from the giddy heights of fame, flare, and frivolity to the degradation of confinement, disease, and penury. British law, which in 1897 forbade homosexual practice, ended Wilde’s nights of attending plays, having dinners with wits, literati, and gliterati, and ranking as a major, if controversial, figure in England’s cultural life. He died age 46, two years after getting out of jail for “gross indecency”. Who can count the plays, stories, epigrams, and quips we missed because of the official treatment accorded Wilde in Victoria’s subject’s name?
Oscar Wilde’s life is almost as much a tragedy for us, the public that loves his work, as it was for him. His downfall could have been avoided. He invitied judicial recourse by yielding to entreaties from his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas’s, to sue his father, the Marquess of Queensbury, for slander, prompting the famous compiler of boxing regulations to retaliate by pressing criminal charges against Wilde.
We can see this tragedy played out creatively and movingly in OSCAR, a thoughtfully crafted opera by Theodore Morrison and John Cox, being given an expressively excellent production, directed by Kevin Newbury, for Opera Philadelphia. It’s not the dandy, the aesthete, the boulevardier, or the spouter of random bons mots they depict, but a private Oscar Wilde, communing with his friends and supporters, novelist Ada Leverson and powerful editor Frank Harris. The composers are clearly more interested in Oscar comfortable and decompressed among his intimate circle, than Oscar the performer or bon viveur entertaining a fawning coterie.
Morrison and Cox’s Oscar is a man who is experiencing reality in a way he never could have fantasized it. OSCAR depicts Wilde confronting the possibilities of conviction, sentencing, and escape. Morrison and Cox concentrate on the inner Oscar Wilde, the man who encounters and expresses his thoughts about matters at hand. We are assured this is an accurate from Wilde’s perspective because Morrison and Cox form their libretto from Wilde’s words by using “De Profundis” and “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” for its text.
OSCAR is a first-class work, presented intelligently. Morrison’s score creates the right atmosphere for individual passages. Its music is varied and captures the moods of particular moments as it ranges from light, melodic ballroom airs and rhythmically expressive dance passages to the ominous tones that denote the bleakness of Reading Gaol.
Book scenes also cover a broad emotional range. Morrison and Cox organize their opera in two acts, one in London before Oscar is sentenced, and the other in Reading Gaol. David Korins’s versatile set provides images of both. Even while we and Oscar are enjoying the coziness of Ada Leverson’s nursery, the doors on each side of the stage remind you of solid cell doors, and you see the long, open, windowed ceiling that looks institutional. And there is that symbolic crib.
David Daniels is remarkable as Oscar Wilde. His pure countertenor is quite expressive of the various stories Oscar has to convey, from his celebration of “Lady Windermere’s Fan” to the decline of spirits once he’s in jail. Heidi Stober brings great humanity and humor to Ada Leverson. You immediately see Ada’s regard for Wilde, and Stober can play lighter moments/ William Burden continues his skein of fine performances in Philadelphia with his sincere and commanding turn as Frank Harris. Reed Luplau dances excitingly. His Bosie leavens the opera and provides change of pace. Lithe and expressive, Luplau can be the romantic, the temptor, the bratty insister, and a symbol of doom and destruction. Wayne Tigges gives no quarter as either the judge eager to mete out Oscar’s sentence or the warden eager to exact Oscar’s punishment. Dwayne Croft was a stolid Walt Whitman who sang the poet’s part well. Whitman, whom Wilde met during one of his lecture tours to Philadelphia, serves as a narrator and commentator. Roy Hage gave the prison chaplain a moralistic edge that magnified his sliminess and his lack of interest in the men he is allegedly shepherding. Joseph Gaines and Benjamin Sieverding were genuinely pesky and genuinely threatening as Queensberry’s agents sent to keep Wilde from enjoying London prior to his sentencing. Jarrett Ott and Thomas Shivone made big impressions as the convicts Wilde meets in the infirmary.
The Opera Philadelphia orchestra, conducted by Evan Rogister showed the differentiation and textures in Morrison’s score. David C. Woolard’s costumes include drab prison uniforms, fashionable Victorian outfits, and a panoply of clown garb, judicial robes, and colorful, playful wardrobe for the trial scene.
OSCAR will stand the test of time. It shows the values of Wilde’s era and works both as a portrait of a man in the most difficult time in his life and as a look at an era when the punitive was valued more than an individual’s overall contribution to a society. Read the full review >> [Academy of Music, 240 S Broad Street] February 6-15, 2015; operaphila.org.