Opera Philadelphia's winning streak with modern opera came to an abrupt halt in the first act of its current production, Oscar.
This new work about Oscar Wilde's "gross indecency" conviction was so one-dimensional in its first half Friday at the Academy of Music that the opera - which might as well be titled St. Oscar - forgot how to be theater. Those committed to attending should take heart: Act II has far more dramatic viability, though it may be too little too late.
Premiered in Santa Fe in 2013, Oscar promised a signature role for countertenor David Daniels. With an expert director like Kevin Newbury, one can count on theatrical veracity. However, curiously little tension is felt in Theodore Morrison's music as the celebrated author of The Importance of Being Earnest is kicked around by the public.
The volatility of Wilde's relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas is sidestepped by having Douglas portrayed as a dream-like non-singing dancer. Walt Whitman lurks about as sort of a narrator/gay godfather. The trial that ends Act I is entertaining with all the prosecuting elements dressed as circus performers. But the scene tells you only one thing - that the trial was a joke - in a medium whose specialty is mixed messages.
The music accompanies all these events but doesn't appreciably participate in the storytelling. One sensed what the composer was after mainly from observing conductor Evan Rogister's animation: He seemed to know what Morrison was perhaps a step or two away from achieving.
Once Wilde is in prison, operatic conflict is abundant, mostly in the psychological brutality projected by the metallic edges of Morrison's knotty though predominantly tonal score: Wilde, the master of artifice, suddenly hasn't the slightest control over his external life. You do feel his pain. The act grows gothic when charismatic dancer Reed Luplau (normally the spectral Douglas) becomes the Grim Reaper. By this point, the act has enough momentum to carry the opera through to Wilde's postprison apotheosis.
As Wilde, countertenor Daniels faces a steep challenge, coping well enough theatrically and vocally. But if one were hoping for a sharper, scrappier approach, can any countertenor (given the soft-grained quality of the voice type) convey the role's rhetorical needs?
Other cast members have good Act II singing opportunities, especially Heidi Strober as Wilde's friend Ada. As Whitman, veteran Dwayne Croft emerged as a model of vocal eloquence. Perhaps because I've heard William Burden so often, I caught him using various vocal tricks to convey emotions that the music only hinted at in his role of editor-publisher Frank Harris. It was yet another manifestation of the feverish lengths this production goes to in order to leave audiences feeling as though they've experienced . . . something.
Presented by Opera Philadelphia at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.
215-894-1999 or operaphila.org