THOMAS AGERFELDT OLESEN: The Picture of Dorian Gray
01 March 2017
Singers consigned to the orchestra pit, the stage given over entirely to dancers: it’s hardly a surprise that The Picture of Dorian Gray, the first opera written by the Danish composer Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen, has come to be spoken of as one of Den Jyske Opera’s ‘bravest ventures’. But it’s so much more than that. The release of the DVD, recorded live during the 2013 premiere run, reveals this to be a work of quite remarkable musical freshness, originality and operatic imagination. Although dance has of course been closely associated with opera since the 17th century, seldom has its role been as radical as here. Perhaps the production’s nearest forerunner was the acclaimed version of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas by the Mark Morris Dance Group, staged in 1989 and released on DVD in 1995. There, as here, the singers were sometimes visible in the film but never set foot on the stage; instead, the drama was danced throughout.
Olesen’s score lays out the ‘basic concept’ that informed his setting of Alasdair Middleton’s English-language libretto of Oscar Wilde’s only novel. Each (invisible) singer must have a corresponding ‘dancer, commedia dell’arte performer or mime on stage’; also on stage should be two (dancing or miming) ‘groups of angels or supernatural beings’. The choreographer Marie Brolin-Tani’s interpretation of these minimal directions was to realize the piece as a ‘choreographic opera’ for 18 dancers, understood as ‘physical extensions of the voices of the opera singers’. To help achieve this, she required the dancers to be present at voice rehearsals, where they had to stand facing ‘their’ singers, so as ‘to read off and learn the individual singer’s attack, pauses, breathing and way of singing’.
Olesen’s score offers transports of many different kinds. Fluent and lavish in its mixing of idioms—Richard Strauss, ragtime, the musical, and others tend to burst through the pervasive Modernist idiom—it is an endless source of surprise and delight. Often the music inhabits a space close to rapture, its lyricism unfolding, sometimes explosively, in big, rolling swoops, its intoxicating sonorities evoking a fantastic realm entirely appropriate to the drama, its ultimate climax finely wrought and powerfully moving. In principle, Olesen’s decision to keep the singers out of sight and replace them with dancers would seem to be problematic, not least because direct visual connection with the singing protagonists is lost. But the gain, in this realization at least, is that the visual arena is hugely enriched by the dancing bodies occupying it, bodies given over to highly stylized, expressively unconstrained movement, consummately executed. Quite properly, the set has no truck with realism: its sumptuous, exquisite designs are abstract, and depend entirely upon lighting and digital projections.
The performances are superb. Suggestively, Dorian Gray is a countertenor; expansive of voice and expressive, Andrew Radley excels in the role. Jonathan Best’s performance as Lord Henry Wotton is deeply affecting, despite what seems to me to be a need for greater variation of timbre and better control of an over-insistent bass vibrato. James Bobby, his baritone clear-toned and strong, is a persuasive James Vane. As Sybil Vane, Jenny Thiele is a real find. Singing gorgeously, her timbre honed in the German popularmusic background from which she was plucked, she makes wonderful sense of some of the most striking music in the opera.