THOMAS AGERFELDT OLESEN: The Picture of Dorian Gray
15 March 2017
THE DVD OF Danish composer Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen’s Picture of Dorian Gray, based on Oscar Wilde’s novel, describes the 2013 piece as a choreographed opera—that is, in this Danish National Opera production, all the singing comes from cast members in the pit, while each singer has a dancing counterpart onstage who visually interprets the score through stylized movement. This takes some getting used to. (Even the booklet acknowledges “At first we are confused.”) The work of the imaginative director/choreographer Marie Brolin-Tani is intricate and expressive, but it’s also distracting and occasionally verges on parody. One notable exception is a bacchanal sequence in Act II that reflects Dorian’s new hedonistic lifestyle, in which the choreographic approach makes sense, because the participants, in various states of undress, are supposed to be either dancing or performing sexual acts to the dreamlike, slightly off-kilter vaudeville music.
Olesen’s eclectic score, with a creative, inquisitive libretto in English by Alasdair Middleton, traverses unusually diverse styles. The composer flits effortlessly from skittering textures and astringent, invigorating harmonies to opulent romanticism and swinging dance-band sequences. The only misfire is the easy-listening music for Sybil Vane (the doomed actress in love with Dorian), which is so folkish it’s banal. Jenny Thiele, who sings the role, sounds lovely, like Judy Collins, but this style doesn’t mesh with the others. Olesen, however, shows he can compose in almost any genre.
Among the men, countertenor Andrew Radley sings with admirable clarity and gives Dorian a distinctive otherworldliness. He’s at his best in a harrowing passage during which Dorian, represented onstage by the compelling dancer Maximillian Schmid, confronts the finished portrait and rages at his growing older while the painting retains its perfect beauty. Basil Hallward, the smitten artist painting Dorian’s portrait, is a spoken role, rendered with dreamy introspection by James Bobby. Bobby, however, sings as well, double-cast in the baritone role of James Vane (Sybil’s brother), who distrusts Dorian and warns his sister to stay away. As Vane, Bobby assumes an aggressive edge and sounds like a different person. In Act II, he rages magnificently over his sister’s death, supplemented by the lithe, intense stage presence of dancer David Price. In one striking sequence, Vane has an erotic pas de deux with a prostitute while singing incongruously of his sister’s idealism and purity. (The prostitute, portrayed onstage by the alluring dancer Katya Nielsen, bewigged with cascading red curls, is richly voiced by alto Bolette Bruno Hansen, who deftly doubles as Mrs. Vane.) Bass Jonathan Best sings the part of Hallward’s intellectually seductive friend Lord Henry Wotton with steely and insinuating authority. Best and Radley have a ravishing duet in the final scene. The opera gives the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, under the unerring leadership of musical director Joachim Gustafsson, ample opportunity to display its versatility.