On an extremely cold Sunday afternoon in February, I attended the Philadelphia Opera Company’s production of the opera Oscar. There has been a lot of enthusiasm about this production beyond the expected buzz that a premier would cause. Recently, the Free Library of Philadelphia discovered three unknown manuscripts of Wilde in its basement as it was in the long-going process of digitizing its collection. Because of this find–academics and scholars are quite astounded–and the accompanying exhibit at the Rosenbach Museum, which houses a good deal of Wilde paraphernalia, the arrival of an opera based on the Irish playwright, poet and bon-vivant seemed particularly timely.
I don’t attempt to be any sort of expert on opera. I know the stories of several of the most famous and can recognize the melody of several of the more familiar arias, but other than that seeing an opera is basically always a jump into the unknown for me.
And perhaps because of my inexperience, I found the music to be the least memorable part of a very memorable performance.
First the story itself is a mesmerizing tragedy–a tragedy in the literal sense of a great man falling and a tragedy in the “man-on-the-street” sense of a heartbreaking story. Wilde, one of the most famous personalities of his time, is brought into court for crimes of “gross indecency”–which in 19th century England meant homosexuality. And while his friends arrange for him to escape to France before the trial commences, Wilde believes its the honorable thing to stay and fight the case in court. And of course, Wilde loses. He is found guilty and his years of hard labor at Reading Gaol, make up the second half of the performance.
And secondly, the staging and the sets were extraordinary.
The opera begins when the orchestra finishes the overture and the house applauds. During this applause, Oscar Wilde makes a curtain call, coming through the curtains,
accepting the applause–which has now been combined with recorded applause–to thank the house for its generous reception to Lady Windemere’s Fan. We then move quickly to Wilde talking with his friends about his options in the celebrated court case. (There is a bit of slapstick with two Keystone-Kop type henchmen that are busy poisoning Wilde’s name among innkeepers so he cannot get a room anywhere. He ends up hiding at his friend Ada Leverson’s house.)
The court case–a circus in itself–was mounted as a Fellini-esque carnival with the jury represented as so many toys from a child’s toy box. There were tumblers and rocking horses, clowns and rag-dolls. The judge, when he appeared, popped out as a jack-in-the-box, all loose-limbed and spineless with a simpleminded smile on his face. The scene closes the first act.
As bizarre and surreal as the court-room scene, the next scene is stark and daunting. Wilde is given his prison clothes and his hard labor. And throughout he is haunted by the presence of his beloved Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas whose father initiated the criminal action. (Actually, Bosie’s father’s initial action was leaving a calling card for Wilde that called him a “posing sodomite.” addressing him. Against the advice of his friends, Wilde charged him with libel. It was during this libel case that evidence of Wilde’s homosexuality came to light and allowed the crown to prosecute him for “gross indecency.”)
In the opera, Bosie has no lines or any singing. He is simply an ethereal character who throughout both acts flits into Wilde’s memories. He is played by Reed Luplau, a dancer whose sinuous moves are both graceful and haunting. In prison, he climbs upon Wilde’s prison bars like some avenging angel.
When Wilde is released, he is a broken man. He left England for the continent and spent three years in poverty before dying in a shabby Paris Hotel. Oscar Wilde was 46 years old.
The opera has been reported as being written by Theodore Morrison (with John Cox as co-librettist) with the countertenor David Daniels expressly in mind. And the visual is a very good one, for Daniels at times looks very much like Wilde. As a countertenor, however, the voice to me seemed much, much too high–almost a falsetto at times–and off-putting. Contemporaries had noted that Wilde had a “lilting” voice, but I don’t know if that accounts for high pitch. Wilde was a relatively big man and that voice does not seem to fit the body. An acetate (of dubious authenticity) of Wilde recording Reading Gaol at the Paris Exhibition in 1900 replicates a higher-pitch voice, but that–it can be argued–could be a result of recording speed and early technology. Nevertheless, to me it seemed unreal, at odds with those around him–including his friends.
The music itself was atonal and the lyrics seemed pedestrian. One would expect more wit coming from the mouth of Wilde.
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In front of the desk where I write there are two bookcases. The one holds volumes of poetry. The other biographies. I happened to look up–for assurance–to see if my Oscar Wilde biography was there and was pleased to see that it sat next to Justin Kaplan’s life of Walt Whitman. For I forgot that Whitman’s ghost is also a character in Oscar. As a narrator–he mentions that the events of the trial and imprisonment took place five years after Whitman had died and fifteen years after he had met Wilde in America– he seems to serve as the maitre ‘d to the pantheon of literary greats that line the wall in the first and final scenes. His brilliant white suit and steely-grey beard at a touch of gravitas, that seems to rise above the nonsense of British legality and the circus of Wilde’s trial.
In the end, Wilde dies and enters the halls of literary greatness, escorted by Whitman himself.