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No light-hearted gaiety in ‘Oscar’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — “The public as a mass takes no interest in a work of art until it is told that the work in question is immoral.” Oscar Wilde said that. But the new opera “Oscar” based on the last few years of Wilde’s life concerns an “immorality” of quite a different sort – the love that dare not speak its name.

“Oscar” was commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera in conjunction with Opera Philadelphia as a vehicle for countertenor David Daniels with July 27 being the first performance.

Besides Daniels in the title role, the SFO has mounted a cast of four outstanding principals and SFO favorites – Heidi Stober, Wilde’s friend Ada, William Burden as the writer Frank Harris and Dwayne Croft, the apparition of Walt Whitman. The work was composed by Daniels’ by friend Theodore Morrison with a libretto by John Cox.

The story begins as Wilde has been accused of “gross indecency,” a crime that then drew a prison sentence of hard labor, but he refuses to leave England for a variety of complex reasons. His lover Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas) appears as a dancer (Reed Luplau) throughout the evening.

In choosing a known (as opposed to legendary) historical figure as subject, an author/composer is never quite free to create an entirely original work. Audiences will naturally bring to the theater what is commonly known about the person and inevitably judge the work accordingly. Choosing the high sound of a countertenor as Oscar Wilde adds one more hurdle to be jumped.

Don’t expect any of the light-hearted gaiety (the word does still retain its original meaning) of “The Importance of Being Earnest” variety. Rather this is the Oscar Wilde of “De Profundis,” here cast in darkest terms as martyr-to-the-cause. In this emotionally charged atmosphere the singers all give strong, impassioned performances.

“Oscar” is an interesting play (except for the ending), reminiscent of the historical character plays of Tom Stoppard. But therein lies the problem – it is a play not a true libretto. The language is nearly all free speech in random rhythm, which rarely, if ever, can be made into effective music drama.

One need hardly write in traditional poetic meter to solve the problem, but solve it writers must. Opera needs language that leads composer and performers into melody, the genuine stuff of opera, whatever style or period.

The style is harmonically reasonable (read: listenable), however, the music seems constantly fettered trying to accommodate speech rhythms and the inability of the language to sing, despite the exceptional beauty of the voices employed. While there are moments of genuine lyricism, they last only a few seconds before the words intrude, and the music never thoroughly sets sail.

The first act is set almost entirely in a quasi-recitative style. When words and music do lend themselves to congruency in the second the act, the music is bitter indeed. The final scene apotheosis of Oscar Wilde reaches into the realm of idolatry.

The staging of “Oscar” is imaginative and complex. The costumes of the phantasmagorical yet highly satirical “toy trial” scene, which ends the first act, are a feast.