On May 8, 1996 a new opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray, had its world premiere in Monaco. It could have been a British -or rather Irish- work, but the interesting fact is that it is the first opera by a young American composer, Lowell Liebermann. The event took place in Monte-Carlo's prestigious 19th century Salle Garnier. Although a coproduction with the Pacific Opera in Costa Mesa, California, it was in Monte-Carlo where numerous world premieres of operas by Puccini, Massenet and others have already been performed that the work was launched.
This new work was the result of a lengthy creative process by the composer, who, by the way, also wrote the libretto. In the final stages, he was helped by John Cox, the stage director, well known for such memorable productions as Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. Liebermann explains that his musical treatment of Oscar Wilde's masterpiece is based on the twelve-note row, although not at all used in a serial manner. That sounds tough when reading about it, but it is not. As a matter of fact, hearing the twelve-note theme slowly disintegrate while, on stage, the portrait of Dorian Gray gets progressively corrupted, gives an impressive dramatic effect. Altogether the musical complexity is indeed accessible at first hearing, and it makes an extremely engrossing performance. This is an unusually lyric opera for a contemporary work, and if anyone is looking for affinities, we venture to say that Britten and Philip Glass could come to mind.
Everybody knows the theme of the novel, a sort of revisited Faustian myth, and that helps; it is like getting into a "classical" piece. In particular, I found that the dialogues between Dorian and his "soul-painting", transposed into duets between a tenor and the orchestra, quite superb. To make visual art become music was a real challenge, and this young promising composer is certainly someone to watch. The stage settings by Stephen Brimson Lewis were very ingenious: half pictural in the Victorian (e.g. James Tissot) mode, half abstract (a cube only delineated by its sides, centering the action on stage), as a representation of the interplay between the historic setting of the novel and the timelessness of the myth.
The cast fit the approach chosen by its creators, mostly masculine, adding another interesting biographical twist: John Hancock was Lord Wotton, a kind of deus ex machina, as close physically to Oscar Wilde as possible, with an impressively rich baritone voice. Jeffrey Lentz was Dorian Gray; he bears an uncanny resemblance to Alfred Douglas and has a beautiful tenor voice, although lacking power in the most dramatic scenes. Gregory Rheinhart was the doomed painter, a forceful bass for a perfect balance of voices. Steuart Bedford, the gifted promoter of Benjamin Britten's operas, conducted the Orchestra of Monte-Carlo.
I would recommend that all California opera lovers attend the performances in Costa Mesa, whenever they are scheduled to take place in the future. Check the Opera Pacific home page for further information.
Alain Dornic, firstname.lastname@example.org