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