Odyssey Opera's "Dorian Gray": Fifty Shades

Jon Jurgens in "The Picture of Dorian Gray"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

The Picture of Dorian Gray, Opus 45, was the semi-staged opera recently presented at Jordan Hall by Odyssey Opera (in collaboration with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project) under the company's Artistic Director, Conductor Gil Rose. A two-act work in twelve scenes, it was composed in 1995 by Lowell Lieberman, utilizing his own libretto, based on the novel by Oscar Wilde. A relatively unknown work, it proved to be an unexpected pleasure, with music that was approachable yet unusual, especially in its use of instruments such as the celesta, which added an air of mystery to the orchestration. The libretto, on the other hand, quite faithfully followed the story arc of the original source material, to the extent that almost all of the sung and spoken dialogue was taken straight from Wilde's only novel. It's a variation on the timeless and familiar Faustian tale of a bargain made with the devil, though strictly speaking the devil never actually appears.

In 1890's London, acclaimed painter Basil Hallward (bass Matthew Curran) is finishing a portrait of the handsome Dorian Gray (tenor Jon Jurgens), while chatting with aristocrat Lord Henry Wotton (baritone Thomas Meglioranza), who remarks he must meet the subject of the painting. Dorian himself then arrives, commenting that the painting will endure unchanged while he will only age. He wishes it were the other way round, even if it would mean giving up his soul to make that happen. He stops Basil from destroying it, saying that would be murder. Lord Henry invites them to the opera. A month later, Dorian tells Lord Henry he's fallen in love with a young actress, Sybil Vane (soprano Deborah Selig). He meets with her backstage. Dorian and Sybil sing of their mutual love. After Dorian departs, Sybil's brother James (baritone David Kravitz), declares that if Dorian ever hurts her, he will kill him. After a disastrous performance on stage by Sybil, Dorian and Lord Henry enter her dressing room to a chorus of boos from the theater. Dorian and Sybil argue, and he leaves as she contemplates suicide. Subsequently Dorian learns of her death and notes that the expression on his portrait has changed to one of cruelty. He orders the picture removed to his attic for storage, vowing to live a life of passion and pleasure, unmoved by Sybil's suicide. Eighteen years later, Dorian looks the same as ever, while Basil, visably aged, is disturbed by rumors of Dorian's depravity. Dorian takes him to the attic and reveals the now-bloodied and distorted portrait, then in a sudden fury stabs Basil to death. Later that night Dorian frequents a notorious bar where a whore (soprano Claudia Waite) calls after him by his old nickname, Romeo. This is overheard by a sailor who turns out to be James, who bribes the prostitute to tell him how to find Dorian. On the estate of Dorian's friend Lord Geoffrey, during a hunt, Dorian shoots at a hare, which turns out to be James whom he has killed in error. Dorian, denying he knows the murdered James, promises he will reform, and Lord Henry muses on what a wonderful life Dorian appears to lead. In the final scene in his attic, Dorian sees that the painting has again changed, showing a portrait of hypocrisy and cunning. He stabs the picture, screams, and falls dead, a knife in his own heart, as the portrait now looks as it did when first painted.

Liebermann was on hand in person to give a pre-performance lecture at Jordan Hall. In his talk as well as in the program, he referenced a number of characteristics of the novel, such as its “fragrance of decadence”, describing it as “most moral of books”, as a “horror story...tragic romance, Victorian morality tale...and philosophical examination of the amorality of art and the question of appearances vs. reality” or form vs. content. He further noted its “eclectic blend of romanticism, aestheticism and classicism”. Alluding to the role of Basil as Dorian's alter ego, he accused both of them of acts of blasphemy that, in Wilde's view, must be punished. Each man, in fact, kills the things he loves. Lieberman further stated that Henry's aphorisms are meaningless, but cleverly and seductively expressed in two acts that are fully sung in an unbroken symphonic span. The entire opera is “based on a twelve-note row used in a tonal context...first heard at the beginning in pizzicato cellos and basses, harmonized as Dorian's theme, then the painting's theme”. As the painting disintegrates and becomes corrupted so does its theme. Liebermann sums up his entire work as one grand passacaglia, with ”tonal structure generated by a non-tonal device...further metaphor for the form/content divide in the novel”. As he has stated, the only major character alive at the end is Lord Henry (Wilde's persona in the book), “perhaps dismissing all with one final world-weary and cynical aphorism”. It was a unique opportunity to hear a composer's own voice.
The cast was also in great voice, especially Jurgens in a very lengthy and challenging role. The two female roles, filled exquisitely by Selig and Waite, were astonishingly impressive, and the same could be said for the sinister Meglioranza, the mysterious Kravitz and the conflicted Curran. Even the relatively minor roles, Lord Geoffrey (Frank Kelley) and the Gamekeeper (Jeremy Ayres Fisher) were superbly delivered, and, though brief, challenging in their own right. They were expertly led by Rose with his typically commanding conducting, with the orchestra of almost fifty players somewhat tightly squeezed together in order to provide two playing areas for the semi-staged work. The use of overhead projections to visualize the picture's deterioration was extraordinarily well done. At times one longed for surtitles as well.

Oscar Wilde himself should have the last word here: “Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man's face. It cannot be concealed”. This was at the core of both the novel and its operatic adaptation, with application to our own time. Once again, Rose has proven to be a master of rediscovery of undeservedly overlooked music. It's a role that we should never take for granted.

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