I was thrilled to travel to Philadelphia on February 6 to see Opera Philadelphia's East Coast première of the new opera Oscar, co-commissioned with The Santa Fe Opera. The opera was composed by Theodore Morrison with a libretto by Mr Morrison and John Cox, based on the writings of Oscar Wilde and his contemporaries. It received its first performamce at Santa Fe in 2013.

David Daniels (Oscar Wilde) © Kelly & Massa
David Daniels (Oscar Wilde)
© Kelly & Massa

The story meanders through the last few years of Oscar Wilde's life, beginning with his 1895 sentencing to hard labor for gross indecency and ending with his death in 1900. In Act I, Wilde has sought refuge in the home of his friend Ada Leverson just before his sentencing, where they are joined by another friend, Frank Harris. Drink livens up their evening in Ada's children's nursery, but also results in a mock trial adjudicated by the nursery toys. Act II includes several scenes from Wilde's imprisonment and cruel treatment at Reading Gaol. There seems to be very little structure, very little story arc. The best parts of the libretto are extended passages in Act II that are lifted directly from Wilde's The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

I've seen a number of new or new-ish operas where the strength of the libretto brought the whole piece together as music theater in the second half. Not so with this opera. I wish I could say I liked the music more, but I didn't find it very skillful or polished at all. There were some pleasant moments, and there was some particularly effective choral writing. (Given Mr Morrison's background as conductor of large choral/orchestral ensembles, the fine choral writing is not surprising.) The vocal writing seemed unforgiving and not very melodic.

Oscar's "trial" © Kelly & Massa
Oscar's "trial"
© Kelly & Massa

All the performers were very strong indeed, particularly considering the needlessly difficult and complex vocal writing. Countertenor David Daniels gave a very effective performance, showing Wilde's pride and occasional arrogance, but also the pain and despair of his incarceration and the ensuing humility. The use of a countertenor voice seemed to echo the other-worldly effect Benjamin Britten found in using a countertenor for Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream. As Ada Leverson and Frank Harris, soprano Heidi Stober and tenor William Burden both brought considerable vocal skill and beauty to roles that seemed to be thankless both in vocal writing and in contribution to the story line.

Veteran baritone Dwayne Croft excelled as Walt Whitman, but I couldn't figure out why Whitman was a part of this opera. Wilde and Whitman had met on Wilde's 1882 American lecture tour, but Whitman was long dead by 1895, when the action begins. Yet Whitman was the narrator. Whitman might have been like Virgil in Dante's Inferno, tour guide and tutor, but there weren't references or story points to support that idea.

Heidi Stober (Ada) and William Burden (Frank Harris) © Kelly & Massa
Heidi Stober (Ada) and William Burden (Frank Harris)
© Kelly & Massa

Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas was portrayed by dancer Reed Luplau. At this point in history, "Bosie" had fled to the continent, so this figure was like an apparition. Again, echoes of Britten, brought to mind Tadzio in Death in Venice. It was no surprise when Bosie and the Grim Reaper were one and the same in the Act II execution scene. (This was the only misstep I think Costume Designer David C. Woolard and Make-up Designer David Zimmerman made – when the Grim Reaper removed his hood and cloak, he looked more than a little like a space alien out to do some probing.)

Outstanding performers in minor roles included Opera Philadelphia Emerging Artists Jarrett Ott and Thomas Shivone as fellow prison infirmary patients and Roy Hage as prison chaplain. The Opera Philadelphia Chorus, under the direction of Elizabeth Braden, deserves kudos for for a fine performance of some difficult music, as do the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Evan Rogister. I must also commend Scenic Designer David Korins and Lighting Designer Rick Fisher for their excellent contributions, particularly for Act II.

I like Opera Philadelphia's work. I like the work of all the performers and the production team involved with this opera. I just wish I liked the opera more.