A few months before I received for review the DVD of Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen‘s 2013 opera The Picture of Dorian Gray (not to be confused with Lowell Liebermann’s 1996 opera of that name), I watched something more commonplace: a broadcast from overseas of a standard-repertory opera with a well-known tenor star, who shall remain nameless.
The tenor, who can pretend insanity but probably has not tried Insanity, was doubled in one scene by an identically dressed dancer. The singer was obliged to stand, watch and react as his fit, graceful doppelganger went through choreographic foreshadowing business at some length. I joked to friends that I wonder if an opera singer in such situations ever thinks, “Ten years from now, that guy will act the whole part while I sing from the wings.”
Well, the future is now, sort of. Danish composer Agerfeldt Olesen (b. 1969), British librettist Alasdair Middleton, and Swedish stage director/choreographer Marie Brolin-Tani have made of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel what Ms. Brolin-Tani calls a “choreographic opera.”
In this Danish National Opera production, filmed at the Musikhuset Aarhus over four dates in August 2013, the singers are amplified and stationed in the pit with conductor Joachim Gustafsson and the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra. Dancers portray Wilde’s characters, and Ms. Brolin-Tani supplements the doubles with a mute Greek chorus of additional dancers. There is one other dancer with no vocal counterpart, a little person (Sigrid Kandal Husjord) whose character is billed as “The Inner.”
Middleton’s libretto, in English, is a slightly simplified but generally faithful telling of the much-adapted Wilde novel’s story. The moral and naïve artist Basil (spoken role) loves and idealizes the beautiful youth Dorian (countertenor), who falls under the influence of Basil’s hedonist friend Henry (bass). Dorian wishes to remain forever as he appears in Basil’s portrait of him. With Henry’s Mephistophelean encouragement, Dorian explores sensual pleasures and vices, and his wish is granted: the toll of his sins is revealed only in the painted image.
Dorian’s first lover, the young actress Sybil (pop singer), commits suicide when Dorian rejects her following an embarrassing performance. Basil confronts Dorian about rumors of his immorality and corrupting influence on others, and Dorian murders him. After narrowly escaping death at the hands of Sybil’s vengeful brother James (baritone), Dorian vows to reform and severs contact with Henry. His repentance has no effect on the painting, which grows uglier still. Dorian realizes that even his repentance is motivated by vices: vanity and curiosity. Only with his death (handled more mysteriously and symbolically in the opera than in the novel) is the spell broken.
Agerfeldt Olesen began as a cellist, and prior to my confronting The Picture of Dorian Gray, I was unfamiliar with his compositions. What I listened to of his instrumental music, including a 2009 symphonic piece called Der Wind bläset wo er wil, suggested a more distinctive voice and a sharper focus than the pastiche that is his first opera. The opera’s predominant vocal style is a familiar free-ranging arioso, which the orchestra supports with Lutoslawskian shimmers and hints of jazz.
Several musical detours may have been intended as homage or satire. Henry breaks into a toe-tapping number (“Who could question the moon on the sea?”) that sounds like a Harry Warren trunk song, and the bass pinches his nose during the first verse for a radio-crooner sound. Brother James waxes Claggartian in his dark threats. A scene concerning Dorian’s infatuation with Sybil is so close to Richard Strauss in Octavian-and-Sophie mode that listeners may be trying to place a specific quotation. Sybil’s futile pleading to her faithless “Romeo” takes the form of a schlocky Broadway ballad from the later 20th century. A pianist decorates the orchestral fabric with ersatz Chopin during another pivotal confrontation.
It probably would be unfair to say the score never finds coherence, as there is no evidence it went looking. However, I do not find the music distinguished in its hopscotching eclecticism. It tops out at being pleasant to hear and, the first time through, perhaps surprising. When there is a low point, such as a spoken litany (“There is pleasure in [noun]”) over the chipper dance-band music of a choreographed orgy, the consolation is that we will soon be on to something different. The opera, in two acts, runs about as long as a more familiar Wilde adaptation, Strauss’s Salome.
The countertenor Andrew Radley and the dancer Maximilian Schmid achieve an improbable two-man triumph with a compelling and plausible Dorian Gray. Radley’s enunciation is superb, and he has a strong grip on the musical line throughout his range, with piquant coloring down low. Schmid is given a properly pale, androgynous look (he initially resembles, in styling and wardrobe, a painting of Lulu for the Berg opera). He moves elegantly, has a spooky charisma in stillness, and always commands the stage.
James Bobby, the baritone cast in the singing role of James Vane, also handles the important spoken role of Basil. The artist is, in his manner of expressing himself, the most plainspoken, “artless” character. I feel that the doubling was a mistake. Bobby tries to give the dialogue a casual sound for contrast with the formality of his bass and countertenor partners’ recitatives and sung lines, but an actor more experienced with dialogue would have been preferable.
Sybil is sweetly voiced by German pop/folk singer Jenny Thiele, in flawless English with what sounds like an American accent. The idea, one surmises, was to separate the doomed Sybil from the others, but in a different way from what is done with Basil. Sybil is a singer, but an ingenuous, unschooled, “accessible” one.
Jonathan Best, the Henry, has a mellifluous bass-baritone that thins out at the bottom but is not often tested there by this music. The final Dorian/Henry encounter is, interestingly, the closest thing to a love scene in the opera (more so than Dorian’s respective scenes with Sybil and Basil), and Best’s dancer double, Johan Ohlson, pairs with Schmid for an erotic pas de deux. Various shorter parts are given to singers of presumably long experience.
Dance is typically beyond my purview, so I will not comment in depth on the choreography or the flair with which the troupe executes it. Ms. Brolin-Tani had the responsibility of keeping people moving for most of two hours in her sleekly designed stage production (sets are by Johan Kolkjaer), and not all of the moves we see are dazzling. Nothing seems entirely unmotivated by music, but the music does not always provide strong motivation, and so there is a good amount of what to my eye looks like calisthenic place-marking and stretching.
From time to time, however, music, text, and physical expression come together in revealing ways and the concept begins to work. Black-clad dancers join Henry at the moment he forms his bond with Dorian, and these dancers return periodically. They accost poor Sybil like furies, and remain with Dorian even after Dorian orders Henry to leave. “The Inner,” the dancing little person, initially projects innocence and wonder, but writhes in torment at Dorian’s sins and is increasingly careworn. She could be a living representation of the painting, but there is a more literal painting too, a projected photographic image occupying an irregular aperture.
An essay in the DVD’s booklet, by a Danish classical-music editor, condescends to Danish critics who “used words like ‘different and exciting’, ‘ambitious opera project’, ‘easy to be entertained by’ and went home again. Confusion on a higher plane, one might say.” The writer resorts to exclamation points in pleading for the work: “The Picture of Dorian Gray is part of a proud tradition! […] The listener can sense impulses from Richard Strauss at one moment and from the popular musical the next. But not because Agerfeldt Olesen cannot make up anything himself!”
My sympathies are with the critics. There is surely skill on display here, and one feels goodwill toward several of the participants. It is not easy to write about and evaluate the success of something that has no obvious analog, and I would prefer not to get into the issue of whether this is “really” an opera, or how often or widely it may be seen in the future. Agerfeldt Olesen’s effort, one learns, won the 2013 music-drama prize from the Danish Arts Council.
I finished The Picture of Dorian Gray feeling I had seen a collection of impulses in various disciplines, some of the impulses good ones, but that the impulses had added up to less than a triumph. Sometimes the success of an experiment is only in demonstrating that it is possible to do something; it falls to some subsequent effort to prove the idea is a good one. Several trials down the line, maybe the great art happens.
Subtitles are in English and Danish only.