We all know Wilde’s The Picure of Dorian Gray. Or do we? This year Nicholas Frankel published the “annotated, uncensored edition”: Wilde was bowdlerized by his earliest editor, but recent editions (including Bristow’s 2005 scholarly one) restore much of the “unhygienic” (read: “gay”) aspects of Wilde’s work. Likewise in the opera by composer Jeffrey Brody and librettis James M. Saslow: created prior to and independent of the recent critical editions, their Picture of Dorian Gray makes explicit the title character’s licentious depravity. The world premiere performance was presented by Longwood Opera on Friday, June 3, and will be reprised on Sunday, June 5, at 2:30 pm — both performances at Christ Episcopal Church, 1132 Highland Avenue, Needham.
The opera, which runs about two-and-a-half hours with intermission, opens with an enigmatic cluster chord. The choral epigraph introduces the 12-tone motif representing Lord Henry Wotton (Dorian’s tempter and corruptor), while a chorus of voices off-stage sing the final lines of Huysman’s A rebours (“Lord take pity on the Christian who doubts, . . . .”). A lyrical Dorian mode melody symbolizes Dorian Gray, and a romantic melody partly in Lydian mode symbolizes Basil Hallward, painter of the eponymous portrait. These musical cells return throughout the opera, including an orchestral interlude marking the passage of years and Dorian’s utter dissipation – a Passacaglia founded on the 12-tone Lord Henry theme. There is also a theme symbolizing the portrait itself, an ominous cluster scored for massed strings and here realized on synthesizer. Four vocal excerpts from the opera posted on the company’s web-page give a sense of this work.
The casting is remarkable. Jonathan Nussman perfectly embodies the pretty boy Dorian Gray from the beginning, vapidity developing into arrogant dissipation and opium-addicted desperation with intimations of fear and self-loathing in the final scenes. Patrick Massey captures the timidity and guarded character of Basil Hallward singing out love for Dorian as much as his repressive character will allow. Alexandra Lang as Sibyl Vane (Dorian’s fiancée) offers a study in young, starry-eyed innocence. Giovanni Formisano presents her brother, James, as a picture of wary wordliness and Angeliki Theoharis as Mrs. Vane embodies her mother both protecting and ambitious, ably expressing the fragility of her secret past in a key moment. Fred Furnari sings diabolically as Lord Henry Wotton.
The church hall is not a kind space to the singers. Afterwards I heard audience members lamenting the absence of microphones. I could hear well, but I thought most of the singers on stage were straining to overcome the hall’s acoustics. The few scenes staged on the main floor in front of the audience were much clearer, the singers less labored in their projection. This production could benefit greatly from a more sympathetic hall.
This is the third premiere in Longwood Opera’s twenty-five year history. More power to them: we should all support their daring programming and efforts to keep opera a living art form. Their motto is “Opera for All!” and this production demonstrates how their shoestring budget works. Given two dozen people (more or less) with dedication and commitment, Longwood Opera mounts an opera with professional-caliber singers. True, there is a pianist and synthesizer rather than a full orchestra, and singers do double-duty as stage hands. Scene-changes were longer than if there had been a dedicated staff for this, but the music bridged the shift in stage action quite nicely. The staging is so effective that I forgot the budgetary constraints and multi-tasking performers, finding myself wholly transported inside the story. I do miss the interplay of vocal and orchestra timbres, though, and hope to hear The Picture of Dorian Gray again some day, with full orchestra. Obviously that requires more than two dozen dedicated people to pull off.
Cashman Kerr Prince is trained in Classics and Comparative Literature and is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.