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Walk on the Wilde side

After Heart of a Soldier, The Perfect American, The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene, et al., the premiere of Theodore Morrison’s Oscar in Santa Fe last Saturday came as a welcome relief. Here for once was a real opera—not a would-be Sondheim musical, not a mere play-set-to-music, not a strong musical composition undermined by a flabby text, but a work in which words and music really interact and fill each other out in theatrically effective ways. It’s not without its flaws, but it still made for an extremely satisfying evening. 

The libretto, by Morrison and John Cox, draws on Wilde’s own words, as well as contemporary documentation and the poems of Walt Whitman, who appears as a kind of Spirit Guide or Shakespearean Chorus or something or other. (Whitman and Wilde became acquainted during Wilde’s American travels.) Dwayne Croft’s sound as Whitman was a little woofy for my taste, and the American poet’s figure didn’t always integrate quite seamlessly. But the payoff at the end, when Whitman inducts Oscar into the ranks of the Immortals, was impressive.

The action picks up just before Oscar’s trial for indecency. There’s doom in the air: he’s already lost his libel suit against the Marquess of Queensberry, society has begun to shun him, and a conviction is almost a foregone conclusion. Will he cut and run, as his friends Frank Harris (beautifully handled, as usual, by William Burden) and Ada Leverson (a radiant Heidi Stober) urge him to do?

He doesn’t, of course. Much of the first act is devoted to exploring his state of mind, including his own vision of his relationship with his true love and Nemesis, Lord Alfred (“Bosie”) Douglas. Bosie is silent: a dancer, not a singer. It’s a risky choice, but I think a dramatically astute one. What we see is not Bosie himself, but Oscar’s experience of him. However, though Reed Luplau certainly looked the part and danced with striking athleticism, Séan Curran’s choreography did too little to explore what is, after all, a very ambiguous character. Oscar surely must have idealized him, but just as surely he would also have experienced Bosie’s duplicity, manipulativeness, pettiness, and so on—and dismissed them.

As the entire structure of the work makes perfectly clear, love is not just a matter of idealizing the objet aimé, and presenting Bosie in this idealized form throughout the first act dilutes the real strength of Oscar’s love with too much tincture of infatuation. Bosie’s transformation into various malevolent guises in the second act comes too late to make the point effectively. Nevertheless, despite the shortcomings of the choreography, the positive portrayal of gay love was often very moving.

As Oscar, David Daniels sang beautifully—the role was written for him, after all—and his teddy-bearish charm was an immense asset. He was thoroughly believable and sympathetic, and one feels a bit of a churl asking for anything else. Nevertheless, he could have made much more of the emotional journey inherent in the score. Most significantly, he seemed to have only a very limited sense of Oscar’s wit, which the libretto deploys liberally and enjoyably.
Wilde’s wit was a multi-functional instrument. It could console and embrace, yes—aspects that Daniels covered pretty well—but it could also skewer, lacerate, and most importantly, throw up a sheltering wall against the outside world.

Daniels was content to toss off a large share of the witticisms as mere bons mots, giving us little sense of Oscar’s initial fury at being snubbed and prosecuted, his defiance (“The Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight!”), his capacity for exuberance, his comparative blindness to consequences. There was no sense, as the action progressed, of what it must have cost him to be witty amid the appalling environment of Redding Gaol (chillingly evoked by the production), or of the process through which a strong man becomes broken in both body and spirit. All of these would be supported by the score.

But Daniels’s characterization didn’t go very far beyond a generalized, albeit touching, sadness. Granted, the score could have given him more to work with in a few places. Each act has a major aria for Oscar, most notably “My Sweet Rose” in Act I, and here I thought the music failed to soar as it might have.

Still, Morrison demonstrated an attractive range of musical invention. The cello solos accompanying Bosie’s dances were lovely, and there was a thrilling outburst from the orchestra at the beginning of the strong infirmary scene. The orchestration is appealing (and conductor Evan Rogister made the most of it). The finales of both acts ­– staged with panache by director Kevin Newbury – were effective and powerful. I hope the arias can be revised to achieve the same strength.

David Korins’s set, beautifully lit by Rick Fisher, was imposing, versatile and evocative, though it limited Bosie’s room for movement in the first act. David Woolard’s costumes were bang on the nose, especially in the trial scene, when nursery toys become a nightmarish judge and jury. The supporting cast and chorus all performed admirably.

I don’t think Oscar is the new Nixon in China. But it’s a work of considerable merit that could well have a future, especially if the authors are willing to make some relatively minor tweaks.

Photo: Ken Howard

19 comments

  • manou says:

    La critique du jour!

    (Et ma critique du jour: Reading Gaol)

    • dr.malatempra says:

      Ah, the eternal pedant. A one letter typo!

      Batty, thank you, I was also there and appreciate your excellent and objective review. I agree in almost every detail, except I would suggest the tweaking of the libretto could be more than “minor”.

      • RosinaLeckermaul says:

        I look forward to seeing it next week.

      • rapt says:

        Don’t underestimate, however, the power of a single letter typo:

        “[S]he overlooked a printer’s error on the first page of a book…by which a ‘blond’ man became a ‘blind’ man, so that nobody could make head or tail of the subsequent story.”

        (Muriel Spark, A Far Cry from Kensington)

  • dallasuapace says:

    Thanks for the review. I was very glad to read it.

    Another typo: Seán has the accent on the a, not on the e.

    • mirywi says:

      “There is a saying: ‘An author doesn’t die of typhus but of typos.”

      from ERRORS by Isaac Bashevis Singer

  • laddie says:

    I was there too and agree completely except I wasn’t as upset by the choreography. The remarks on Daniels’ performance are spot on. Luckily, Morrison wrote phrases which were perfectly realized by Daniels in his ability to sing a legato line and execute the coloratura. That man can really turn a phrase. The emotional impact of infatuated love expressed in dance brought tears to my eyes. Bravo Batty for a fair and excellent review.

  • meowiaclawas says:

    Never understood the fascination with falsettists…

  • whatever says:

    thanks … looking forward more than ever to its arrival in the Sixth Borough *next* season.

  • csh90069 says:

    We heard Oscar on opening night, and it was very well performed by the singers, orchestra, etc. However, musically and dramatically I couldn’t find a way to like it. Rather than a defiant, witty Oscar Wilde, I felt that this Oscar was already a defeated victim of a cruel and corrupt system. It makes for a long 2 hours and 20 minutes.

    I hope that some changes will be made before the production is taken to Philadelphia -- preferably with the same strong cast.

    • Ilka Saro says:

      “Rather than a defiant, witty Oscar Wilde, I felt that this Oscar was already a defeated victim of a cruel and corrupt system.”

      That’s an interesting comment. Now I am itching to see this for myself. Your description of the portrayal makes me very curious to see how this is handled. (I know that Wilde was defiant during his lawsuit against Queensbury, but I don’t know enough to say if his defiance continued through his own trial).

      • Flora del Rio Grande says:

        Ilka, in the book for the Santa Fe Wilde, Oscar is often shown as defiant, but it is of offers to help avoid prison. From Frank Harris and his yacht ready to depart that minute for France to Geo Bernard Shaw urging Oscar not to sue Queensbury because it would bring down the wrath of Victorian hypocrisy upon him (and Shaw was right), Oscar seemed bent on self-destruction. He said ‘no’ to every way out of avoiding disaster and came up with some bromide about helping spare others of his mis-treatment, which is B. S. Truth is, Oscar was a supreme egotist and highly narcissistic and in the most neurotic way. This was just his personality, and that is what sank him.
        My problem with the Santa Fe show is that it depicted mainly the downside and the dark side of Oscar and we had none of his genius creativity and wit — or just tiny bits, not enough to sustain an entertaining evening, so the result was a downer with a feeling of incompleteness about it. Alas the nondescript music did nothing to add drama or interest.
        But what a nice set! And how well produced and acted and sung. And
        I think Maestro Rogister is a major new talent! What a commanding conductor he is.

    • Batty Masetto says:

      I don’t want to dump on David Daniels, because his support for the project has obviously been crucial, and he gave an intelligent, warm, musically beautiful and thoroughly professional performance. Plus, there was no tradition for him to draw on, and (after seeing the director’s work in this and Mary Magdalene) I suspect that he may have been working in a bit of a vacuum as far as Personenregie went.

      I think the score gives Oscar a great deal more gumption than we actually got to see, right through to the humiliation of being stripped and fumigated on arrival at ReAding Gaol (ok, Manou?). Daniels played that moment more as a wearisome encounter with an inept dresser than as the crushing indignity it must actually have been.

      (Sorry, bear enthusiasts: no David au naturel. He was wearing a full set of Victorian undies.)

      Whatever the historical Oscar’s attitude, Daniels was in effect committing the old actor’s sin of playing the last scene in the first, and the director should have helped him away from it. The work would support a great variety of moods and reactions, including defiance, etc., right into the second act, and theatrically that’s what was needed.

      • Camille says:

        Batty, are you scouting any Souhwest cuisine recipes for Genevieve whilst you are/were there?

        Come to think of it, her amadillo fritters would go over quite well in Santa Fe as après théâtre snickerdoodles, if ya now what I mean. Mightn’t she think of relocating now, so as to put the slugs flambé tragedy bhind her, so to speak? Food for thought.

        • Batty Masetto says:

          Yes Camille, I really have to be more careful when I talk on the phone to Genevieve -- she got all “inspired” when I called her from Santa Fe and lord only knows what she’ll come up with next.

          But I doubt she’d ever move anywhere else, other places have all those food inspectors and stuff. The regulatory atmosphere on Hiway 13 suits her just fine, and it appears the insurance money has more than made up for the loss of the slugs.

  • Camille says:

    I have always admired Oscar Wilde quite a bit and his writing, very very much.

    This film, starring Stephen Fry, about Oscar could be perhaps of some interest to others:


    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Av9F_zdMR8w&sns=em

    At first, I didn’t really buy Mr. Fry as Wilde, but little by little I began to see he was not trying to be his twin—impossible really—but was interpreting his aspect, as it were, and No, I didn’t mean to say aspic.

    Jude Law is outrageous and gorgeous, too.

    Maybe some of you may like the film, for whatever it is worth. And oh yes, Vanessa Redgrave is Mamma Wilde. Oh yeah.

    • Ilka Saro says:

      This is a very moving film. It emphasizes that Wilde was motivated by his identity as an Irishman in suing Queensbury, a point which is often lost in the fascination over how boldly Wilde exhibited other aspects of his character. And to this day, as with Shaw, Wilde’s Irish heritage tends to get downplayed or ignored, as it would never have been in his own times. In the eyes of Victorian England (and Victorian America), the Irish were foreigners worthy of continued debasing ridicule. Whether the English were comfortable with (or even aware of) other aspects of his presentation, Wilde could always be dismissed for being Irish.