Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Santa Fe Opera premieres Oscar missing his Wilde side

David Daniels as Oscar, with Heidi Stober and William Burden. Photo: Ken Howard

By Rodney Punt

Like the unwieldy storm clouds that had gathered and burst overhead all week, the July 27 premiere of Oscar at the Santa Fe Opera aimed for catharsis. With its stellar cast, elaborate sets and massive orchestra, Theodore Morrison’s opera, based on the tragic final years of playwright Oscar Wilde’s life, was both a brave and uncannily apt commission for the company. At least it seemed so on paper.

Completing his first opera at age 75, veteran composer Morrison and his co-librettist, the eminent opera director John Cox, may have loved Oscar not wisely but too well. How so? The emotionally charged news-cycle of current human rights advocacies too obviously shaped Wilde's operatic persona into a persecuted martyr for the cause of gay liberation. Amidst the ensuing hero worship, Wilde’s complex real life character proved as elusive of capture as bottling New Mexican lightening.

The brilliant, flamboyant, mesmerizing, prideful, reckless, and self-destructive Oscar Wilde that the world has come to know is here entirely missing in action; his exuberant and at times dark character attenuated by selective revelation and adoring obfuscation. Wilde, sans his brilliant theatrical wit and scintillating personality, emerges as just a man in a jam named Oscar.

The opera resembles a tragic oratorio without much in the way of real conflict. Act I begins just before the infamous guilty verdict in Wilde’s sham trial for sodomy. Act II continues with his sentence of two years’ hard labor at Reading Gaol. The Wilde we encounter is in the first act a fatalistic victim of a cruel legal system and in the second a passive victim of a cruel prison system. The ensuing journey from point A to point A’ leaves no room to unfold a dramatic arc.

Characters are often defined by description at the cost of engaging drama. Live action segments are sparse, giving way to reflection, memory and narration. (No less than one half of the libretto consisted of excerpted works with observations by Wilde and his circle of literary friends.) When in an active mode, however, the opera did come alive in isolated scenes. Under such limiting overall circumstances, Kevin Newbury's imaginative and empathetic direction compensated for many of the inherent weaknesses in the opera.

The title role was written for countertenor David Daniels, who acted and sang through a long evening in as compelling, fresh and pliant a voice as this writer has ever heard from him. His doomed character was, however, on an internalized journey from humiliation to a purification of soul with few signposts from which to measure progress.

Daniels with a masked Reed Luplau. Photo: Ken Howard
Along that way Oscar existed sometimes in the real world, where various characters interact with him, and sometimes in his projected fantasies, most often those of his beloved Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, portrayed here in a silent role by the supple dancer, Reed Luplau, as imaginatively choreographed by Se├ín Curran. Bosie was the doppelganger of both soothing reveries and tormenting nightmares, transforming from a life energy into an image of death. Bosie's presence was introduced in the orchestra by a lovely cello theme. But his non-singing role too often cast him as a decorative cameo rather than an interactive actor.

Oscar’s refuge in the home nursery room of novelist and loyal friend Ada “Sphinx” Leverson (sympathetically portrayed by soprano Heidi Stober in the opera's only female role), accompanied by their journalist friend Frank Harris (another solid outing by SFO tenor William Burden) provided much needed dramatic dialogue, even if its mission to convince the doomed Wilde to flee England was foreordained to failure.

Likewise, a second act encounter in the prison infirmary (featuring tenor David Blalock and bass Benjamin Sieverding) gave rise to a touching interaction between Wilde’s wounded and humbled sophisticate and the two unschooled but intuitively wise fellow-travelling patients. It was the single most moving scene in the opera.

Less effective was Wilde’s interaction with the cardboard villainy of Governor of Reading Gaol Colonel Isaacson (hollow-cheeked bass Kevin Burdette), whose malice was dramatically too brief to be any more malevolent than short-term bluster. (Where was Cool Hand Luke’s Strother Martin when this opera needed him?)

Ada's nursery as Oscar's courtroom
David Korins’ grand-scaled sets served effectively as heavenly halls and horrible prisons, but his big surprise was an imaginative set piece at the end of Act I, where the safety of Ada’s nursery room morphed in Oscar’s tortured mind into the hated courtroom, its harmless toys becoming menacing accusers, its crib a jail cell, and its jack-in-the-box a jeering judge spitting out Wilde’s guilt as it bobbed mockingly side by side. 

David C. Woolard’s delirious costuming added colorful heft to the surreal moment, just as his Victorian-period costumes had supported the veracity of other scenes. The distorted nursery trope had resonance in Bosie’s recurring image as the source of both Wilde's adoration and downfall. The things he had assumed safe had in fact become fatal.

Substituting for a scarcity in dramatic conflict was the ill-conceived conceit of a prologue and epilogue bookending the opera’s two acts and featuring a heavenly Walt Whitman (the emphatic baritone Dwayne Croft) who, in his more corporeal days had met Wilde on his American tour of 1882. Speaking from the Halls of Immortality, Whitman assured the audience in their humble seats of mortality that Oscar’s greatness would ultimately be rewarded. This foreknowledge collapsed Wilde’s trials and tribulations on stage into a ritualized road trip to beatification.

Had the real Wilde known so trite a dramatic device as this latter-day deus ex machina would be employed in his rescue, he would likely have demurred at departing his honest grave. Coming to praise Wilde, Whitman’s presence embalmed a complex and contradictory character with saintly immortality and buried him in the soil of blandness.

It wasn’t as if the creative team that devised Oscar lacked an abundance of incident in the playwright’s life from which to draw. There was, for instance, his surprising triumph in 1882 as a lecturer on aesthetics to rapt cowboys and miners in America's Wild West. A decade later came the flamboyant and dangerous period of Wilde’s double life as celebrated playwright of London’s West End and obsessive denizen of its dangerous underworld. There was potential for the interactive frisson of conversation between Wilde and his fatal attraction, Bosie, the sunshine lover who egged on an unnecessary trial but then fled when the consequences became too hot to handle. Finally, the enticing opportunity to adapt the real trial was available on the historic record, and offered a verbatim account of Wilde’s rapier wit almost winning the day against the Marquess of Queensbury’s dogged determination to destroy him. 

Such incidents could have made for a blood-curdling evening at the opera, but all were missed opportunities left on the creative floor of Oscar.

The ruminating drama had no such lumbering counterpart in the evening's skillful vocal lines and effective instrumental music. Given the opera’s dramatic passivity and episodic structure, Morrison’s orchestra spoke in a surprisingly active voice and with clean and crisp textures.

From its cinematic opening in big, bold statements, ably executed in the hands of conductor Evan Rogister, the orchestra was a colorful and alternatingly soulful or aggressive presence. Its language was conservatively tonal but well-crafted, and accented with heavy dissonances that could on occasion test atonal boundaries. Powerful choral passages in the prison scene and earlier, ably prepared by chorus master Susanne Sheston, revealed the composer’s long mastery in this idiom. Especially effective was his use of brass choirs, the latter creating colors with the winds that could be ejaculatory in their mockery, wrenchingly dissonant in agonized lower brass legatos, and bracing in the trumpet stabs of prison cruelties. The orchestra’s virtuosity confirmed the septuagenarian Morrison’s passing comment in one of the many panel meetings before the premiere that all his previous music had been “juvenilia.”

Playwright Oscar Wilde cautioned his audiences in The Importance of Being Earnest that truth is rarely pure and never simple. It is unlikely that the author of such later shocking live-action operas as Salome, A Florentine Tragedy and Der Zwerg would have approved, even at the sake of an unflattering portrayal, the well-intentioned but severely censored realization of his character in Oscar.

That said, there was still much to savor in this premiere.


All photos are used by permission of Santa Fe Opera.
Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Turning Pages Long Ago for Pianist Samuel Sanders


Los Angeles, CA

Art song, in the tradition of European cultivation that began at the end of the 18th century, involves an intimate interaction between a singer and a pianist. The singer may depict many an imaginary role on stage, but the pianist must be grounded in reality to monitor his singer even as he creates her supporting atmospherics. Empathy is a key virtue. Also deference. But never servitude. Though it may have been expected from certain singers of yore, it is no longer a legitimate requirement, in either the musical or psychological sense. Therein lies a tale.

The most nerve-wracking experience I ever had was not the intensity of live-fire military training I endured in the summer of 1968, but a a job I had shortly before receiving my baccalaureate that year from UC Santa Barbara. One fine morning I was asked on short notice to turn pages that evening for a pianist at a lieder recital. Replacing a suddenly ailing colleague, Samuel Sanders had flown from New York at the last minute to accompany the eminent soprano Evelyn Lear.

Pianist Samuel Sanders
I picked up a fatigued and slightly nauseous Sanders at the airport after an exhausting flight from the East Coast and a bumpy puddle-jumper out of LAX to Santa Barbara. We drove to an abbreviated twenty-minute rehearsal with Lear on the stage of the university’s Campbell Hall. Sanders and I were briefed on which verses of several strophic songs Lear was to sing and the tempos she expected. I flipped pages back and forth for an accompanist sight-reading in various keys the scores he may just have received. Lear sang just a few bars of most of her songs during the rehearsal. After a blur of orders on our cues, I drove Sanders to his hotel for a short rest and a bite to eat. Almost immediately thereafter, it was show time.

The evening had gone well. I was amazed at Sanders' agility at partnering Lear hand and glove throughout the program. Also impressive was his ability to adjust at sight to the keys that fit Lear's voice and in so polished a manner it seemed they had performed together regularly.

Quite unexpectedly at the end of the evening, however, the soprano’s memory lapsed in the middle of a Mendelssohn song spinning with piano arpeggios. She maintained a frozen smile, bravura hiding her bluff, and stood regally. Not missing a beat, Sanders furiously vamped ersatz Mendelssohn as he quietly signaled me to take it da capo so he could bring her in on the last verse. I did so. He repeated the intro and whispered an initial phrase at Lear. She came in on cue, and the song, with the evening, concluded in fine style.

None in the audience seemed aware of the lapse that almost blemished the recital. We walked off stage to a round of applause. Sanders and I exhaled a sigh of relief. Lear remained regal as she pivoted on the ready for a final bow. The two artists took to the stage one last time, Mendelssohn’s score clasped firmly at Sanders’ side.

Offstage soon after, Lear suddenly snapped at Sanders, dressing him down as a school marm might an errant pupil; why had he not dropped his music off backstage at the FIRST exit? Whether from shock or tact, whatever Sanders felt at that moment went unexpressed.

My jaw dropped. This venom was coming from the soprano he had just saved from public embarrassment? Was she power tripping, playing a mind-game? I may never know what possessed Lear to strike out in this manner, but I will never forget her rude behavior.

One sees the odd story here and there of rescues not being appreciated; a lifeguard pulls a drowning swimmer out of the ocean, only to be chewed out as they reach the safety of sand. Gratitude in such cases can apparently be trumped by wounded pride. That psychology is a couch-study for commentary.

The point is not to pass judgment on a singer who needed to let off steam after a nerve-wracking night. It’s to emphasize the sudden awareness and respect I had gained in one hyper-charged encounter for the under-appreciated skills and forbearance of the piano accompanist. The days of such a gaping inequality between a singer and her pianist are long gone, even if behaviors like this now and again erupt. The era of hissing divas (of both sexes) was to undergo a transformation with the general democratization of American society.  

It may have been experiences like that Santa Barbara evening that prompted Sanders to become one of his profession's most celebrated change-agents. He insisted his name be credited with the singer on all concert promotions, not always the case before. He was among the first to employ the term “piano collaborator” as preferable to “piano accompanist.” As a faculty member at the Juilliard School from 1963, he established a master's degree program for accompanists and insisted that women be admitted to what had once been an all boys' club.

In his distinguished career Sanders would partner with the greatest vocal and instrumental musicians of his time, among them violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and tenor Robert White. Thanks to Sanders and others of his stamp, piano collaborators in the modern era have achieved prominence. The field has even attracted soloists like Leif Ove Andsnes and the just retired Alfred Brendel, among others, to engage with singers. But I find it is pianists who make a specialty of partnering with singers on a regular basis who catch the most consistent magic in the elusive blend of voice and piano that is song.

I never encountered Sanders in person after that evening in the fateful year of 1968. I had asked him a question on our way to the hotel earlier that day. Who of the great composers did he find the most challenging in song partnership? His answer was Schubert, but at that moment he told me he was too tired to explain why. I was never to find out from him. But in a roundabout way, I eventually discovered some answers from another great pianist and lieder specialist. These insights will be the subject of a later entry on the art of song collaboration.

Sanders’ death in 1999 at the relatively young age of 62 was a great loss. A lengthy New York Times obituary summarized the pianist’s pioneering contributions to the art and craft of piano collaboration. It’s worth your attention.


Photos above: 1. from Pablo Helguera for NPR Music. 2. from Classical Archives
Rodney Punt may be reached at [email protected]