If portraits don’t decay with age, neither do operas. Friday at Jordan Hall, Odyssey Opera and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project presented a semi-staged production of Lowell Liebermann’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Liebermann’s opera debuted in Monte Carlo in 1996, but though it had to wait 20 years for its Boston debut, it was none the worse for wear.
Liebermann’s libretto is extraordinarily faithful to the novel. He omits the long chapter in which Dorian pursues his interests in perfumes, music, jewels, tapestries, and ecclesiastical vestments, and also the one in which Dorian blackmails former friend Alan Campbell into obliterating the body of Basil Hallward. He has a whore in a dockside tavern serenade Dorian with “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” and he makes Dorian a guest at, rather than the host of, the estate where James Vane is killed. Neither alteration seemed necessary, but no harm was done.
It’s London in the 1890s as the opera opens. Basil Hallward has just finished his portrait of Dorian, who says he would give his soul if the portrait could grow old while he remained young. Dorian falls in love with 17-year-old Shakespearean actress Sybil Vane, but when she decides she prefers life to acting, he drops her and she commits suicide. Dorian notices his expression in the portrait has become cruel.
Eighteen years later, the portrait has not only aged but taken on his innumerable debaucheries. When Basil upbraids Dorian for his excesses, Dorian shows him the portrait and then kills him. Slumming at the docks, Dorian is accosted by Sybil’s revenge-minded brother, James; James tracks Dorian to a country weekend but is the victim of a shooting accident. Dorian tells the portrait he wants to reform; the portrait is not impressed. When he tries to free himself by stabbing it, he himself falls dead, a wrinkled old man.
At Jordan Hall, the opera got all the staging it needed. The cast wore period clothing, everyone sang from memory, and the acting was better than in many a fully staged opera. Dorian’s home was defined by a tufted French Provincial sofa and a mirror that he kept looking into; Sybil’s dressing room had a small table; a pair of opera seats stood in for the opera house. An overhead screen set the locale for each of the 12 scenes. It also showed us the portrait of Dorian, which aged with each successive viewing.
I wish it had offered supertitles instead. For one thing, Dorian’s deterioration — that is, the portrait’s — was pretty tame. Worse, the vocal lines were often unintelligible above the orchestra. Liebermann gave us a sophisticated film score depicting a poisoned paradise, and it was grounded by the opening 12-tone row from plucked cellos and basses that ran throughout the work. But at every emotional climax the orchestra roared and the singers followed suit. And in quieter moments, the singers were made to sound sententious. This “Picture of Dorian Gray” was unrelievedly serious; Wilde’s light hand was rarely in evidence.
But Jon Jurgens was just right as Dorian, not so spoiled and smug as to be unlikable, and with a sweet tenor. Matthew Curran was a callow, well-meaning Basil with a firm bass. Lord Henry Wotton, who supplants Basil in Dorian’s affections, is less toxic in the opera than he is in the novel; Thomas Meglioranza supplied a bit of the missing menace, though his baritone tended to get swallowed by the orchestra. Deborah Selig was a winsome if mature Sybil, fine in the middle of her range but shrieky at the top; David Kravitz as James Vane, Claudia Waite as the Whore, and Frank Kelley as estate owner Lord Geoffrey had little more to do than shout. Kelley at least found some comedy in his brief role.
Gil Rose, who heads both Odyssey and BMOP, shaped the music with great care. For all its shortcomings, this “Picture of Dorian Gray” brings Wilde to life. Kudos to Odyssey and BMOP for bringing it to Boston.Jeffrey Gantz can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.