When new in 1996, The Picture of Dorian Gray by the American composer Lowell Liebermann attracted attention, both pro and con, for its highly tonal score and up-front desire to please an audience. This was perhaps because its premiere took place in Europe (Monte Carlo), where modernist expectations ran high and still do. As currently heard in the Aspen Opera Theater Center’s production, it now sounds thoroughly mainstream as new American operas go, since so many other composers – Jake Heggie, Ricky Ian Gordon, Richard Danielpour, Tobias Picker – have also embraced old-fashioned values.
Those composers sometimes underestimate the expressive resource of dissonance, but you can’t accuse Liebermann of that in this opera, which is based on Oscar Wilde’s novel about a young man who ceases to grow old while a portrait of him changes to reflect both the ageing process and his increasingly twisted soul. Gregory Fortner’s staging never permits the audience to see the portrait, just people looking at it, but when the morally honourable painter Basil Hallward lays eyes on it, it sounds as if all hell has broken loose in the orchestra.
Elsewhere, some of the most apt musical moments come at the most frankly operatic points of the plot, as with the arias for Sibyl Vane, the actress cruelly jilted by Dorian. Finding music of sufficient wit to match the Wildean bon mots of Lord Henry Wotton proved more of a challenge, and the result is often simply conversational. The continuous musical flow of this solidly constructed opera owes something to Britten and Janáček, and I sometimes detected the harmonic and melodic influence of Prokofiev.
Fortner’s simple staging, with sets and costumes of roughly the period by Christopher Fitzer and Summer Lee Jack, in the Wheeler Opera House – a charming relic from the silver-boom days – was unobjectionable. Christian Sanders sang Dorian with a raspy yet sweet tenor that projected the young man’s innocence amid the onslaught of moral decay. Andy Dwan and Johnathan McCullough were strong as Hallward and Lord Henry. Jennifer Cherest’s emotionally charged singing as Sibyl was very affecting, and Allyson Dezii made an unexpected high point of the Prostitute’s rendition of the old favourite “Silver Threads Among the Gold”. Michael Christie was the able conductor. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a good opera, and whenever the music flags, you can count on the mesmerising plot (Liebermann fashioned his own libretto) to propel things along.