Wilde’s downfall began with his ill-advised 1895 prosecution of the Marquess of Queensbury for libel at the insistence of Queensbury’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas. Douglas, aka Bosie, Wilde’s spoiled, reckless 24-year-old lover, despised his father. The feeling was mutual. Queensbury was acquitted of calling Wilde a sodomite, but not before the defense had raked up enough evidence for the Crown to charge Wilde with “gross indecency,” i.e., buggery.
After a first indecisive trial, a second trial was ordered, and that’s where Oscar’s story begins. We see Wilde’s sentencing to two years at hard labor and his ghastly prison term that’s nearly ended when the opera’s historical action concludes. Unfortunately, that isn’t the end of the opera.
Morrison’s libretto, billed as a joint effort between the composer and noted opera director John Cox, claims many fathers: Richard Ellmann’s biography; Wilde’s letters and stories; his last work, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol;” snippets from Shakespeare and Keats; an anachronistic music-hall ditty and, big mistake, a couple of poems by Walt Whitman.
Although Whitman and Wilde had had a friendly acquaintance during Wilde’s 1882 American tour, the librettists’ decision to make Whitman a bothersome ethereal commentator emphasizes the opera’s lack of dramatic action. A silly Prologue “in the regions of Immortality” is surpassed only by an even sillier Epilogue welcoming Wilde to a glitzy company of Immortals. Walt comes across as a whiskery windbag at the expense of a sadly unwitty Oscar.
Morrison’s robust, derivative score is a model of effectiveness, if lacking much coherence. He admits to a fondness for Britten and it shows, with reminders of Samuel Barber and Menotti and, in Wilde’s two big arias, a tiny homage to the final scene of Strauss’ Capriccio. Even Tom Rakewell haunts Wilde’s prisonhouse. Vocally well-crafted, it’s an orchestra-friendly pastiche with plenty of opportunities for lower strings and woodwinds, especially, to shine. Superconductor Evan Rogister leads the never-better band.
Co-commissioned by the SFO and Opera Philadephia, Oscar was written for David Daniels in the taxing title role, and he’s as fluent, flexible and gorgeous as ever. His countertenor never sounded better than in the legato aria, “My sweet rose,” and in the final sort-of duet, “Sweet, I blame you not,” for singer and dancer.
That would be Wilde’s beloved nemesis, Bosie, energetically danced and mimed by Reed Luplau in a variety of guises: a porter, a French waiter, a prison doctor and Death—most of whom reveal themselves as fantastic avatars of the adored Bosie. Here the libretto does a double borrow from Britten’s Death in Venice, where the hero’s male beloved is also a mute dancer and where multiple roles are likewise taken by a single actor. Except that Britten makes it work.
Reliably superb Heidi Stober sings Ada Leverson, Oscar’s kind friend. William Burden is a strongly sung, sympathetic Frank Harris, and Dwayne Croft makes a blustery Whitman. The prisoners’ chorus and many smaller roles are well-taken by the company’s apprentices, notably Ricardo Rivera as Warder Thomas Martin.
Kevin Newbury’s direction moves that fatal libretto smoothly along. Wilde’s sentencing, staged as a malevolent mock trial with nursery toys as judge and jury, takes the scary clown concept about as far as it can go. The chapel scene in the episodic Reading Gaol act is particularly strong, and Newbury does what he can with the opera’s endpieces. Designer David Korins’ brooding cast-iron prison dominates the action; David C Woolard’s costumes never disappoint; choreographer Seán Curran keeps Bosie on his toes; Rick Fisher’s lighting and Susan Sheston’s chorus are, as always, topnotch.
$32-$285. 8 pm July 31, Aug. 9, 12, 17
Santa Fe Opera, 301 Opera Drive, 986-5955