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Wilde’s Luxuriant Novel Makes Effective Opera


Even those who have not read Oscar Wilde’s, first published in a London magazine in 1890 and then in a longer and revised book form in 1891, know the basic theme of the story: Dorian Gray has a portrait in his attic that grows older and more vicious in appearance over the years, as his licentious lifestyle unfolds, while he remains physically youthful and attractive. The book has had a reputation in some circles as celebrating evil, though composer Lowell Liebermann described it in his program book essay as “the most moral of books,” a book that “in its mythic simplicity has lost none of its relevance with the passage of time.” 

Be that as it may, the novel has been adapted frequently into stage and film versions (of which the best known is the 1945 film directed by Albert Lewin (to his own screenplay), in which Angela Lansbury was nominated for an Academy Award for her role as Sibyl Vane. The film won the award for best cinematography for its “noir” style interspersed with a few sudden shocking shots in Technicolor showing the notorious portrait.

Lowell Liebermann wrote his operatic version to his own libretto; it was premiered at the Monte Carlo Opera in May 1996. He had first encountered the book at the age of thirteen and said that it affected him as no other book he had ever read.

Aside from moral questions, The Picture of Dorian Gray is an excellent choice as an operatic subject for the direct and straightforward plot (a very large percentage of which is retained in the libretto), and for the usual operatic elements of sin, suicide, murder, and horror that promise to keep the attention of operagoers throughout.

Indeed, the semi-staged production by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project in conjunction with Odyssey Opera on November 18th managed that very well indeed. It opera works in its semi-staged approach because the cast is small—only seven singers—and hardly ever are more than three on the stage at any given time. Thus the arrangement of the Jordan Hall stage, with the substantial orchestra squeezed into the middle, coming down to a “V” at the conductor’s podium and broadening out all the way to the back wall, left two triangular acting areas downstage right and left for the successive scenes of the opera. In addition, a projection screen at the back center of the stage allowed for the audience to view Dorian Gray’s portrait, in its changing versions as the eighteen years of the story elapse. (Since the portrait is kept secret by Dorian Gray in his attic, it would not do to have it showing constantly; the projected image was be turned off or replaced, at times, by other images suggesting a background of the stage set.)

Minimal furniture was moved on and off by stagehands during orchestral interludes, and the singers were fully costumed and generally acted (within the fairly limited space) as they would in a full operatic production. This arrangement worked very well in providing a clear sense of the opera as a stage work. At the beginning I was especially impressed at how well the singer’s words came across to the listener despite the presence of the full orchestra literally at their shoulders, rather than in an orchestra pit. Later, though, as the orchestration sometimes grew louder and more complex, it became somewhat less easy to comprehend the words, though the general sense of the plot came through.

The story moves quickly through 12 scenes, five in Act I, seven in Act II.  Eighteen years elapses between the two acts, but the scenes in each act follow one another quite swiftly. Act I deals with the creation of the portrait, felt by the artist Basil Hallward to be his masterpiece; the metaphorical “pact with the devil”—Gray’s louche friend Sir Henry Wotton; Gray’s romance with the actress Sibyl Vane, who commits suicide when he breaks it off with her; and Gray’s decision to hide the portrait in the attic after he sees the first signs of cruelty appear around the eyes after Sibyl’s death.

In Act II, the artist Hallward warns Dorian that rumors of his dissolute life are circulating in society. Dorian promises to show Basil his soul, and reveals the painting that the artist has not seen in 18 years. When he is horrified at the changes in it, Dorian stabs him to death. Sibyl’s brother James, a sailor, has vowed to track down and murder the man responsible for his sister’s suicide. He encounters Dorian at a dockside tavern but is convinced that he looks much too young to have been involved with Sibyl eighteen years earlier. A prostitute tells James that the man was indeed Dorian Gray, who has not changed visibly in all these years. James tracks Dorian to a hunting lodge at Lord Geoffrey’s estate. There, while hiding in the trees, James is killed in a hunting accident. Back in Dorian’s rooms, Lord Henry mocks his plan to begin a new life and laughs disbelievingly when Dorian wonders how Henry would react if he knew that Dorian had killed their friend Hallward (whose body was never found). Left alone, Dorian goes to the attic and considers his portrait again, realizing that his plan of reform is hopeless: he is too far gone down that path. Using the knife with which he murdered his artist friend, he attacks the painting—and collapses. The painting is discovered as fresh as it was the first day, while Dorian’s body shrivels into the wrinkled face of an old man,, the knife in his heart.

As we have come to expect with Odyssey Opera, the cast, made up of both local and imported singers, is strong throughout. Most striking was baritone Thomas Meglioranza as Dorian Gray’s charming “devil,” Lord Henry Wotton, with undercurrents of insinuation every time he addresses Dorian. Jon Jurgens was an excellent Dorian Gray, living his life of purposeful immorality, apparently without consequences, though he is strongly affected every time he sees his portrait further decayed. Matthew Curran gave a stalwart performance as the artist whose painting starts the tale and who dies as a result of it. Dorian’s love (for a short time) is the actress Sibyl Vane, played by Deborah Selig. Her voice and acting were excellent in the part, though it was not always easy to make out the words in the highest reaches of the role, at the most dramatic moments.

The other three roles are considerably smaller. Most important of these is that of Sibyl’s brother, James Vane, who threatens that if her mysterious sweetheart hurts her in any way, he will take revenge. David Kravitz was darkly ominous both in Sibyl’s dressing room in the first act and when pursuing Dorian Gray in the second. Soprano Claudia Waite gave a strong performance as the cockney whore in the tavern, who explains to James that Dorian Gray’s face has not changed in eighteen years. Tenor Frank Kelley does an amusing turn as a fey British lord who accidentally kills James Vane in a hunting accident. Tenor Jeremy Ayres Fisher takes on the small role of Lord Geoffrey’s gamekeeper.

Oscar Wilde’s novel is written in a richly decorated, one might say fulsome, language evoking every possible sensation—colors, smells, sights, and sounds, starting already in the opening sentences:

The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn….Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs….

I couldn’t help wondering in advance whether a contemporary opera could possibly capture the sheer fulsome sensuousness of Wilde’s language. In that respect I was very pleasantly surprised.

To be sure, the libretto (by the composer) does not attempt to equal Wilde’s linguistic richness, aiming more for verbal clarity in developing the plot, that is a sensible decision for words that are to  be sung rather than spoken.

On the other hand, the orchestral part, which unfolds in a continuous development of rich sonorities—some passages of elaborate blended sections and others featuring one or another of the orchestral families—does seem to me an effective equivalent of Wilde’s sensuousness. The opera is almost continuous in its musical shaping, with little in the way of separate numbers. The orchestra plays the major role in carrying this along.

Jon Jurgens as Dorian Gray (Kathy Wittman photo)
Jon Jurgens as Dorian Gray (Kathy Wittman photo)

In the Odyssey Opera performance, the orchestra was superbly paced and led by Gil Rose, and largely balanced against the singers, though a full staging with the orchestra in the pit would have allowed the singers’ words to come out more easily in the louder spots.

The Picture of Dorian Gray has enjoyed six productions since 1996. All but this one were fully staged. It is an opera that offers many elements of musical and theatrical pleasure. With its small cast and relative simplicity of staging demands, it would not be unduly expensive to produce. It is an opera that deserves more performances. Since BMOP and Odyssey Opera have often recorded their performances and released them on CD, I wonder whether there might be a plan to do the same with The Picture of Dorian Gray.  With a strong dramatic line and a sensuous orchestral part, and a recording of this performance might very well interest others in its possibilities.

Lowell Liebermann’s opera was the first in a series of “Wilde Opera Nights,”operas inspired by the work or the person of Oscar Wilde, planned for Odyssey Opera this season. Still to come are a fully staged production of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” (March 17-18), a concert performance of “Der Zwerg” (The Dwarf) by Alexander von Zemlinsky (April 14), and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, a satire on the aestheticism of Wilde and his contemporaries (June 2-3).

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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  1. The performance was excellent; an unfortunate change in personal schedule allowed me to attend rather than be in the wilds of central Pennsylvania as one can’t be in two places simultaneously–usually. Dorian Gray is one of my favorites and I agree with the take on interpretation; my understanding is that the story was an expansion of an original short story that ended the story with the act one ending. Dorian (who is young, no more than 17 or 18) takes Sir Henry Wotton and Hallward to see his love Sybil perform and everything goes wrong. The next day however Dorian thinks he can go and make things up only to have Sir Henry appear and tell him the shattering news that Sybil Vane has killed herself; end of original story. Then Wilde expanded the story with a bridge chapter covering how Sir Henry introduces Dorian to real debauchery, then goes on with the rest of Act II. (Oddly enough Liebermann left out how Dorian accomplishes the disposal of Hallward’s body by blackmailing a friend into dissolving the body; the friend subsequently kills himself.)
    Thank you to Odyssey Opera and BMOP for making Dorian Gray happen; Dorian Gray is flawed as a production with two problems the first of whom is NOT the production’s fault.
    No, the problems with Dorian Gray the opera I found were that the story demanded at times that some parts should be handled by recitative or even spoken dialogue rather than being sung throughout; with everything sung an uneven emphasis resulted from their being only a constant emphasis. Maybe I’m too much an opera seria fan but love the Dorian Gray story too much; but as a work of art being broken into arias and smaller units (“recitatives”?) could have helped carry the story a bit better. In 1984 I had a chance to see a marionette opera done with real marionettes with the singers right next to the orchestra; for the finale the singers stood beside the puppeteers which should have been done throughout; this Dorian staging with its performers among the orchestra reminded me of that. Hmmm…a marionette Picture of Dorian Gray? Perfect for a morality play.
    Lastly, every stage and movie production of Dorian Gray I have ever seen makes the same blunder: showing the changed picture. A Big Mistake: as soon as you do that the audience thinks “Oh, only that bad; I thought Dorian was worse than that!”. I would suggest never showing the audience the changed picture; the director here should have left the picture display out. The 1945 movie version makes this same mistake which only a few seconds of editing could cure. Modern audiences are smart enough to dispense with the changed picture (the one in the 1945 film is pure schlock necessary only for stupid people) so the “evil” of Dorian becomes totally unimaginable and thus infinite. I would recommend to Mr. Liebermann if he does a revision to work how Dorian arranged the disposition of Hallward’s body into, even in passing: that is what shows how evil Dorian has become.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — December 4, 2016 at 9:19 pm

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