Gay subjects are in vogue for new American operas. In June, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis gave the world premiere of Champion about the prizefighter Emile Griffith. Now the Santa Fe Opera has unveiled Oscar by Theodore Morrison, a dramatisation of one of the most heartrending strokes of ill-fortune ever to befall a creative artist: Oscar Wilde’s trial and imprisonment for “gross indecency”. The libretto by the composer and the veteran opera director John Cox, which draws heavily on Wilde’s writings, opens as Wilde awaits a verdict and goes on to relate the trial itself; the second of its two fast-moving acts depicts Wilde’s travails in Reading Gaol.
The opera is hardly an exercise in gloom, however. Wildean Witticisms run through its text, the trial is depicted sarcastically and in the opera’s most moving moments Wilde’s imprisonment is alleviated by uplifting encounters with prisoners and a warden who befriend him. Lord Alfred Douglas, whose affair with Wilde sparked all the trouble, is inventively portrayed as a dancer (Reed Luplau). Even the hokey ending is upbeat, as celestial figures welcome Wilde to the hereafter.
It is all neatly stitched together by Morrison’s easily grasped tonal music. But it is a mystery why Santa Fe turned to Morrison, a little-known 75-year-old, whose works include a five-movement War and Reconciliation symphony about the American civil war. What it got was an inoffensive, audience-friendly score redolent of many influences, including Shostakovich and Britten. It also has smatterings of Hollywood glitz, but Morrison finally gets down to business in Act Two, with music that expressively addresses its subject. Still, Oscar is another new American opera that will surely have no staying power.
Santa Fe has given the opera a brilliant launch, with skilful direction by Kevin Newbury and a versatile set by David Korins that features prison-cell doors. The countertenor David Daniels looks amazingly like Wilde (costumes by David C. Woolard), sings handsomely and projects the writer’s widely fluctuating emotions. Heidi Stober and William Burden are strong as his stalwart friends, Ada Leverson and Frank Harris, the former radiant in an aria proclaiming Wilde a legend, the latter compelling in denouncing the gaol’s brutal governor. Having Walt Whitman periodically supply commentary proved a curious device, but Dwayne Croft makes the poet’s words tell. The music is in the secure hands of the conductor Evan Rogister.