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Oscar — Opera Philadelphia at Academy of Music

untitled (25)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 and rendered it a prisonable offense labelled gross indecency, 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.

The moralists of a country snuffed out one of its brighter lights by worrying more about a person’s sexual choices than it did about the joy, genius, and international regard Wilde brought to the Empire. Oscar died at age 46, two years after getting out of jail. Who can count the plays, stories, epigrams, and quips we missed because of the official treatment accorded Wilde in Victoria’s subject’s name?

No one. Oscar Wilde’s life is almost as much a tragedy for us, the public that loves his work, as it was for him.

It’s a tragedy because Wilde’s downfall could have been avoided. It isn’t Oscar being openly gay in defiance of a stupid, but codified, law, that meets the criteria of tragedy. It’s his inviting judicial recourse by yielding to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas’s (Bosie), entreaties 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. It’s also Oscar’s stubbornness about fleeing England and accepting offers of transport to personal safety, and freedom, in France.

Oscar Wilde’s story could have been different if he had just boarded a waiting boat.

We know Wilde’s life, and we know its tragedy, and we can see it 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.

Morrison, the composer, and Cox, co-librettist with Morrison, plot one scant scene of an ebullient Oscar effusing in public. It’s the opening night of his first theatrical hit, “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” and Oscar greets a cheering audience with a series of falsely modest or unabashedly vain witticisms that thank them for coming to sample his artistic morsel and congratulate them for being in the presence of such monumental greatness.

From there, following a too prosaic and too pedantic recitation by Walt Whitman about Wilde’s family, affair with Bosie, and legal situation, Morrison and Cox veer off into the mind of Oscar Wilde. 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, about absconding from England to France. The composers are clearly more interested in Oscar as he is, comfortable and decompressed among his intimate circle, than Oscar the performer or bon viveur entertaining a fawning coterie because it’s expected and he has a talent for it. Theirs is a calmer, less flamboyant Oscar Wilde who is capable of reeling off a random epigram or riposte but is more intent upon sharing what’s on his mind with friends and hearing their ideas. We see a Wilde faced with a critical, life-changing dilemma, speaking from his heart, not be to quoted. “Oscar” also traces Wilde’s career as a prisoner in Reading Gaol.

Morrison and Cox’s Oscar is a man who is experiencing reality in a way he never could have fantasized it. In lieu of a festive, joke-strewn spree, “Oscar” depicts Wilde confronting the possibilities of conviction, sentencing, and escape with his nearest and dearest. These are not his wife and children, from whom he’s been separated, and whom he misses, but people who know Oscar and don’t conform to convention or propriety that would dictate they repudiate or abandon him. The sincerity and individuality of Leverson and Harris are well established. They speak candidly, which is how we know how “Oscar’s” Wilde regards his options. “Oscar” eventually shows us how mistaken or naïve Wilde can be about what he actually faces if he chooses to go to court. Rather than the noble humiliation Wilde pictures and talks about to Leverson and Harris, “Oscar” graphically shows the genuine humiliation and physical hardship he’ll experience in prison. in addition to the cruel brutality he’ll endure, not by convicts but by Her Majesty’s self-righteous moral authorities. 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.

Morrison and Cox concentrate on the inner Oscar Wilde, the man who encounters and expresses his thoughts about matters at hand. Inventively, the writers and Newbury show Oscar grappling with perceptions, receiving information, cogitating on his fate, and suffering more than he calculated, even as we see him straining under the arguments or indignities he must consider or bear.

“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 or the occasion of an execution by hanging.

Book scenes also cover a broad emotional range. You don’t see Oscar holding court at the Cadogen, but he goes through a lot of moods, from concerned to merry, while spending time with his friends; is seen being harried by Queensberry’s minions as he tries to go about normal business in London; and has numerous thoughts, each increasingly demoralizing, as he serves his sentence.

untitled (23)Morrison and Cox find many cunning ways to leaven their opera. Because Wilde, once accused of gross indecency, is hounded from the streets of London and refused lodging at any hotel on inn, even those he frequented, he takes refuge in the nursery of the Leverson house. When it comes time for his trial, the writers and Newbury comment on the nature of the proceedings by having all of the toys in the Leverson nursery come to life, soldiers and clowns taking their place in the jury box, the vindictive judge emerging from a a jack-in-the-box. Newbury and set designer David Korins are clever by placing a crib, in the nursery stage-right. Even before talk of Oscar’s options begins, that crib stands out because the metal beams meant to protect the baby look so much look like the bars of a prison cell. As Oscar’s trial concludes, and imprisonment is certain, the crib is creatively used to become the cage in which Oscar is kept as Prisoner C.3.3. In Act 2, an execution scene is also dramatically heightened by Newbury’s evocative staging.

Also in Act 2, the numbing, strategically monotonous drudgery of Oscar’s prison days are wisely relieved by a scene in which Wilde is taken to the infirmary after fainting from the ear infection that will contribute to his doom and spends time with two young convicts and a sympathetic warder. While the prisoners acknowledge their criminal past, they talk about ordinary life and what they endure in jail compared to what they look forward to upon release. The sequence offers a heartening glimpse of humanity at a point in the opera in which all has been austere and seems hopeless. Oscar and the others have one night of camaraderie, in which no one judges the other because all are convicts, and during which all can speak freely and show some kindness and empathy towards each other. Including the guard, who asks Oscar about other authors and what he thinks of their work. The men’s simple byplay has a air of normality and foments the faint hope that Oscar may leave prison with spirit enough to resume at least his literary life.

“Oscar’s” cleverest invention, one that incisively shows the mind of Oscar Wilde, is having Bosie played by a mute dancer who inveigles and charms his way into Oscar’s consciousness and serves many purposes from influencing Oscar’s decision about leaving England to rekindling the happiness and affection the men shared, to being a demon that tortures Oscar and makes him consider whether all that occurred was folly and if any of it was worth his disgrace and jailing.

This characterization of Bosie always works. His entrance, as Oscar is thinking seriously about Harris’s intention to get him on a yacht to France, is the source of a lot of tension, as you so want Oscar to make a rescuing decision and so fear that the emphatically danced insistence of Bosie that Oscar challenge his father in the public courts will lead to the opposite choice.

The passage is especially powerful because history already informs us Oscar’s fatal next step. To create suspense and the tragic combination of pity and terror when an outcome is known is a wonderful feat the writers and Newbury should be congratulated for bringing about so palpably. Muting Bosie also accomplishes a dramatic economy. It allows us to see and hear Oscar’s reactions as Bosie dances but takes away one layer of dialogue that would lengthen “Oscar” and accomplish no more than Seán Curran’s admirable choreography does.

“Oscar,” although it concentrates mostly on two settings, is epic in scope. It not only tells the story of one individual but gives an indelible picture of the society, judiciary, and a punitive criminal justice structure that goes beyond the immediate tale and indicts an entire time, place, and practice. Even if Oscar was guilty of theft or violence, as the convicts he meets in the infirmary are, the treatment of inmates in Reading Gaol is shown to be on a level that should not be tolerated. Morrison and Cox make this plain by not only writing scenes of absolute brutality but by making clear the rigid attitude of the warden towards convicts and towards Oscar as a homosexual, and by including a scene in mandatory chapel that shows the snotty hypocrisy of religion in the jail setting.

As  selective as Morrison and Cox are in depicting Wilde’s life from 1897 to 1900, the scenes they’ve plotted give a sense of completeness. The writers do not need to dramatize the scenes Wilde describes in “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” of people pelting him with mud and rotten produce as he is taken in chains to the train that will carry him to Reading. The pronouncements from the judge in the jack-in-the-box and the ritual in which Oscar is stripped of his red velvet coat and other personal clothing and dressed in prison gray conveys that part of Wilde’s story clearly enough..

“Oscar” accomplishes a lot. While today, we may wonder how Wilde’s literary achievement, fame, and contribution to British culture could fail to override so scant an offense as having sex with another male, the libretto makes clear the disgust the sentencing judge and moralistic jurors felt. The sad part is the same situation awaited World War II cryptographer and hero, Alan Turing, as seen in the 1985 play “Breaking the Code” and the current movie, “The Imitation Game.” We see a society, and a class of it, that puts its petty peccadilloes above at least two men’s true worth and value to the general. ‘Oscar” underscores two of my favorite sayings, “Spare me the respectable” and “Anyone who enters a court without contempt is an idiot.”

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.

“Oscar” begins on the opening night of “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” with Wilde, happy at being a success as a playwright to add to his reputation as a poet, storyteller, critic, raconteur, and prose writer, regaling the crowd.

You see an ebullient Wilde and hear the kind of comments and phrases that are so associated with this great wit and wordsmith.

The curtain rises and all changes quickly. The pleasant music that accompanied Oscar’s playful talk to the “Windermere” audience is replaced by bustling, buzzing tones. Various hotel reception desks come in and out of view, and Oscar is turned away from all of them, sometimes because of the protests of the Marquess of Queenberry’s rogues, sometimes because of the tender morality of the innkeeper. After Wilde is shunted from place to place, he finds respite at the home of his friends. Ernest and Ada Leverson. He is given the Leverson nursery as a sanctuary, a fitting place because Oscar’s books for children line the shelves. He has read them to the Leverson children himself.

Ada Leverson wants to have a serious talk about Oscar’s plight, but the writer wants to keep things light and frothy. Reality will encroach shortly enough. He prefers to have a sociable evening with the woman he calls his “Sphinx,” a fellow writer whose books are in a different style but whose sensibility and desire for fun are in tune with Oscar’s.

In the various sequences in the nursery, Theodore Morrison shows his range as a composer. Lighter passages between Oscar and Ada have a comic feel to them, and Morrison accompanies them with melodies that could come from the operetta or musical theater. Even the level of song becomes prettier. While Morrison’s score covers all kinds of emotional ground, his vocal line remains patently 20th/21st century in being atonal and without a lot of melody. As Oscar and Ada are at their friendliest, most teasing, and most distant from Oscar’s impending trial, Morrison’s vocal line also becomes more tuneful and more like song than recitative or conversation.

The music adds to the pleasantness Oscar experiences. He and Ada are most compatible, and for one of few times, you see Wilde relaxed and removed a few miles from Old Bailey or the hotels where he has been harassed.

Frank Harris’s entrance is foreshadowed by Wilde saying he hopes Harris doesn’t bully him. When Harris comes on stage, the melodic music takes on a little more tension. There’s some discord. Frank Harris will speak business and speak it plainly.

The scenes between Wilde and Harris let you hear as well as see Oscar’s thought processes. Harris come with good news. He has rented a yacht and can take Wilde to France on the slightest notice. The men banter about Wilde’s reluctance to leave. Bosie is already safe in Paris, sent there by his father to avoid prosecution. He expects Oscar to stay and fight the marquess, whom Bosie wants to spite and defy. Oscar is also stymied by his mother, Speranza, saying she will support him and love him if he goes to prison but will never speak to him again if he goes to France.

All weighs on Oscar. Harris’s arguments are irrefutable. Ada’s concern cannot be denied.

But, as Morrison will show, Oscar is a romantic, and when he is left alone to consider his alternatives and rest a bit from the assault from Harris and Ada, Bosie appears.

Of course, he enters as if in a dream, a figment of Oscar’s reverie. He dances his defiance and pleads with Oscar to think of him and his revenge against his father. Morrison’s catches the romance in Oscar’s soul with lush dance music that harkens to the 19th century setting.

Not only do we see Bosie implore, but we are taken back to the happier times of his and Oscar’s relationship. There are kisses and caresses. The men dance together. Morrison, Cox, and Newbury have created a thorough picture of a match between an adoring older man and his faun-like partner. Morrison’s music is romantic. Seán Curran’s choreography is classical in nature. Reed Luplau is a passionate, energetic Bosie, leaping gracefully and keeping a “come hither,” “do this for me” expression on his face.

Throughout “Oscar,” Wilde will see Bosie in his fantasies, sometimes as reminder of a love that is in abeyance as he suffers his durance in jail, sometimes as a devil and tempter. Luplau also plays Death and other characters that are acted through dance instead of libretto. Always, Oscar sees Bosie is any form Luplau’s parts take,

The nursery scenes feel like those in a good drawing comedy, even with their purpose of persuading Oscar to save himself from prison, which Oscar thinks he can take in his stride and endure by reading, something he will be forbidden once he is admitted to Reading as a convict.

Morrison’s music takes on more colors in the trial scenes. It reflects the bizarre fantasy of the toys coming to life and the bizarre nature of justice as pronounced by a judge who is only interested in Wilde as an flagrant offender, a sodomite, and gives no consideration to his work as an artist.

The trial scene is strong, and Newbury stages it flawlessly, bringing out all the texture and satire while making sure the crushing seriousness of Wilde being sentenced and chained has full impact.

The second act, set entirely in Reading Gaol, depicts unrelenting misery. It blends all Wilde says in “De Profundis” and his “Ballad” with distinct pictures of people in the most downtrodden and humiliating conditions. Warders, except for one, are not friendly or even businesslike. They are martinets, as is the warden, who says he will beat corruption out of Oscar Wilde.

The scene in the infirmary, a sequence in the chapel, an execution, and individual visits from Frank and Ada give the prison scenes some variety. Morrison’s music captures the hermetic feeling of the institution. Themes take on an ominous cast. Drudgery is conveyed in sounds that in themselves comment interestingly on the emotion Oscar and his fellow inmates are feeling.

As the audience feels more tense as an execution approaches, and as we relax a bit when the convicts are having their quiet chat in the infirmary, Morrison’s music finds those moods. The composer is sensitive to all that is happening, and he reflects it in a score that makes use of tones and styles from various periods.

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” and his convivial moments with Ada to his restless thoughts about whether or not Oscar should submit himself to jail and the decline of Oscar’s spirits once he’s in jail.

Daniels has a gift for nuance. This is valuable in an opera that focuses on the internal side of Oscar Wilde, in which what is going on in Wilde’s head is an important as the indignities he is sentenced to experience.

Daniels can show Wilde’s charm with Ada and his intellect and tenacity with Frank Harris. In a role that demands more than singing, Daniels proves complete and ready to express all that is inherent to Oscar Wilde. He even waltzes well with Luplau’s Bosie.

In addition to singing beautifully, Heidi Stober brings great humanity and humor to Ada Leverson. You immediately see Ada’s regard for Wilde, and Stober can play lighter moments, as when Ada grants Oscar respite from having to think about legal matters, and give texture to more solemn passages, as when Oscar announces he is going to Old Bailey and accept his fate.

Stober’s performance leavens “Oscar” as much as the romantic scenes with Bosie or the infirmary scene do. The opera, always crisp, seems to have more of a sparkle when Stober is on stage. She provides a tone of cordiality and understanding that is welcome in a piece that depicts so much dismissiveness and humiliation.

William Burden continues his skein of fine performances in Philadelphia with his sincere and commanding turn as Frank Harris.

Burden doesn’t play the bully Oscar fears, but he conveys earnestness and convinces you that Harris is man of wide and genuine power, one who might not be able to rail away the insanity of Wilde’s gross indecency charge in the columns of his daily newspaper but one who will bend the law and take advantage of his wealth and influence to get Oscar to safety.

Burden exudes the man of action but can also convey sympathy when he realizes Oscar is opting for the more dangerous, more self-abnegating course.

Reed Luplau dances excitingly. Like Stober’s Ada, his Bosie leavens the opera and provides change of pace, even when he is expressing something serious, unpleasant, or contrary to Oscar’s well-being. 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. In both roles, he blindly upholds and spouts the gospel of unmitigated rectitude. Tigges is the ultimate authoritarian, one for whom rules are everything, and power is absolute. He is frightening in the simplicity and single-mindedness of his characters’s thinking and proves a hissable villain.

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. He stands also for an artist whose genius was forgotten in America as Wilde’s was in England. Croft is called upon to provide crucial information and to report what Wilde is experiencing. He did so well. Signs of a cold that was announced before curtain did not seem to affect his strong, expressive voice.

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. Ott, is particular, showed the humanity in his character, a man who made one small mistake and is willing to pay for in time but who has compassion for Oscar Wilde going through the same ordeal.

The Opera Philadelphia orchestra, conducted by Evan Rogister sounded splendid and showed the differentiation and textures in Morrison’s score. David C. Woolard’s costumes, which run a gamut as encompassing as Morrison’s score considering they include drab prison uniforms, fashionable Victorian outfits, and a panoply of clown garb, judicial robes, and colorful, playful wardrobe for the trial scene. Woolard’s designs are tasteful, fantastic, satirical, or non-descripts based on their need, and he can move from pretty to witty to plain as required.

The libretto for “Oscar” came largely from Wilde’s writings, especially in the prison sequences. Morrison and Cox chose well, and their script kept the opera moving while bringing out dozens of salient points.

The Opera Philadelphia production of “Oscar” marks the work’s second presentation and its East Coast premiere, “Oscar”” was commissioned through Opera Philadelphia’s American Repertoire Program, which is does proud,

“Oscar” will stand the test of time. This is an opera that can be performed through the ages because 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. In this new Puritan age, it serves as a cautionary tale.

‘Oscar,” a production of Opera Philadelphia, runs through Sunday, March 15, at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Friday, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $179 to $19 and can be obtained by calling 215-893-1018 or by visiting www.operaphila.org.

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