Even before the curtain goes up, the sound floats through the dark – a high, clear boy’s voice, crystalline in beauty yet cold, like something not quite human. Then the orchestra explodes into a maelstrom, with thundering drums and agitated strings and woodwinds evoking tumult and peril. 

So it’s bit of a surprise when the curtain rises on a static scene – two men, one leisurely immobile on a couch, the other planted next to a large draped frame. Painter Basil Hallward and his guest Lord Henry are discussing Dorian Gray, who soon appears to stand in the frame, which turns out to be empty when the artist removes the cloth. The action freezes as the voice rises again, a motif that will fill in not just the empty frame, but significant narrative lapses in an opera whose staging never matches its musical promise.

Dorian Gray is the first opera by Ľubica Čekovská, a Slovak composer who was commissioned to create a new piece for the Slovak National Theatre. After considering several possible subjects she chose Oscar Wilde’s 1891 novel, principally for the possibilities its central metaphor presented: “I knew from the very first moment that the picture will not be just a visual thing, but a musical thing.” When Canadian novelist Kate Pullinger agreed to write the libretto, the two women decided to keep it in Wilde’s original language. In a dozen performances in Bratislava and a one-off at this year’s Prague Spring festival, the opera was sung in English with Slovak surtitles.

An accomplished composer who uses a full, colorful palette, Čekovská created a restless, seething score brimming with accents, undercurrents and recurring motifs. Though it is not dissonant, her vocabulary in Dorian Gray is unmistakably modern, with barely two consecutive bars of straight melody. Shimmering vibes, ominous horns, whirling woodwinds and sound cascades that build to warped, feverish pitches propel a powerful psychological drama of a world gone wrong, a foreboding place of tension and unease.

At least, in the pit. Onstage, the production is disappointingly inert. The spinning set, which variously portrays Hallward’s studio, Dorian Gray’s living room and attic, the theater where he meets Sibyl Vane and the opium den where most of the third act takes place, provides most of the action. The singers mostly sit or stand around, with even the young boys auctioned off at the opium den remarkably lifeless. Director Nicola Raab seems either unable or unwilling to take advantage of opportunities to inject some life into the staging, even when the situation begs for it. Čekovská wrote some Mid-eastern-flavored dance music for a scene in which a young Turkish boy is brought to Gray’s home to amuse him and his friends, but the best he can manage is a frightened scamper from one spot to the next.

The set and lighting don’t help. The stage is for the most part dark and gloomy, as if someone had forgotten to pay the electric bill. One might argue for low-lit atmospherics, but when Gray yells to Sibyl’s brother James “Look at my face!” – and it’s impossible to see either man’s face in the dark – it makes no sense. The sets are spare and dreary, lacking in style and imagination. The low-budget feeling is reinforced by the use of an empty frame for the painting that famously grows more grotesque as Gray sinks deeper into depravity. There is something to be said for letting the music represent the painting, and encouraging the audience to use a little imagination. But it creates some awkward moments: Gray running into the frame every time someone looks at the painting, and ultimately stabbing himself rather than the portrait.

On its own, however, Čekovská’s painting motif works brilliantly. What starts as a single recorded voice becomes a multi-tracked vocal that degenerates along with Gray’s soul, finally turning into a nails-on-the-blackboard sonic wail. It’s a strikingly effective device, especially used so sparingly.

Otherwise, the vocal writing is not very strong. Much of the dialogue sounds spoken rather than sung, and the lines often seem strained, which is not surprising for a first-time opera, especially in English. The quality of the libretto was harder to assess, with only occasional lines emerging clearly through the foreign accents and sound of the orchestra. Both English and Slovak surtitles would have helped, though there was no missing occasional bon mots like Wilde’s “To be popular, one must be a mediocrity.”

Casting Gray as a tenor made him seem too noble for an antihero, but Eamonn Mulhall brought some balance to the role. Adding strong support were Martin Malachovský as Basil Hallward and Ján Ďurčo as James Vane. Helena Becse-Szabó never quite hit the mark as Vane’s sister Sybil, with a timid voice to match her character. British conductor Christopher Ward did a sensational job with the Slovak National Theatre Orchestra, eliciting a sharp, spirited performance.

Operas with more flair and drama in the music than the acting are by no means unprecedented, or necessarily bad. But the disconnect between the pit and the stage in this production is just too vast. Čekovská is already planning a second opera, for which she will hopefully get a better director. Musically, she is definitely a talent to watch.