Arts opera review

A painting sets into motion a disturbing tale of eternal youth

Lowell Liebermann’s adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray delivers

The Picture of Dorian Gray
Lowell Liebermann, composer and librettist
Gil Rose, conductor
New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall
Nov. 18, 2016

Controversial in its time for its themes of immorality, Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, explores the moral decadence of titular character Dorian Gray (Jon Jurgens). As written in the program’s “Notes on the Opera” by librettist and composer Lowell Liebermann, he found Wilde’s work to be “the most moral of books, and one whose lesson in its mythic simplicity has lost none of its relevance with the passage of time.”

Set in Victorian era England, the narrative opens to Lord Henry Wotton (Thomas Meglioranza) and Basil Hallward (Matthew Curran), the latter painting a portrait. Then enters the portrait’s subject, Dorian Gray, who is bewildered by the artwork’s youth and beauty.

Dorian wishes that he could be the one to not age rather than the man in the picture, inadvertently setting into motion his own destruction as the portrait morphs to reflect Dorian’s soul. Basil, believing the painting to be dangerous, suggests destroying the artwork, but Lord Henry convinces Basil otherwise. As the opera unfolds, we see the cynical Lord Henry continue as a negative influence on Dorian and Basil. Consequently, Dorian’s lifestyle grows more self-indulgent and the portrait, more hideous, while Dorian himself is the only one who has not aged.

Lowell Liebermann’s adaptation put its projector screen to good use to display shifts in setting and the eponymous picture of Dorian Gray, looming above the stage like the eyes of a Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. Each time Dorian unveils the portrait, the changes in the painted man’s face reflects the ruination of Dorian’s soul, the consequence of years of a hedonistic lifestyle ignorant of moral ethics. The consequences of Dorian’s actions continue to haunt him in this portrait.

Gil Rose’s conducting drew the orchestral score to the forefront, helping Meglioranza carry Wilde’s original wit and humor in Lord Henry’s one-liners. In this performance, however, Meglioranza’s delivery feels rather demure and lacks the alacrity of his literary counterpart. In particularly exciting scenes, the orchestra’s presence enlivened conversations between characters, while in the more subdued scenes, its absence allowed a sense of solemn dread to settle on Jordan Hall.

The drawback to the stirring orchestration was its overbearance during a few scenes in the first half. At times, sung lines were difficult to comprehend beneath the bombastic melodies. These small moments did not detract much from overall comprehension, but were taxing breaks in the atmosphere that the scenes had set up before.

Quite a bit of thought was put into the libretto and the performance itself — for such a philosophical novel, this adaptation is palatable for audience members who have not read the source material. In the lecture prior to the performance, Liebermann commented that he was particularly cautious while writing because he wanted the opera to be self-sufficient, not even requiring the program notes to understand the story.

Like its literary source, the adaptation touches upon the difference between outer appearance and inner morality and challenges a hedonistic lifestyle without ethical boundaries. What is remarkable, however, is that this opera adaptation never sacrifices the dense, philosophical underpinnings from the original text for the sake of clarity, maintaining the best of both theme and narrative. The performance brought out the best in Liebermann’s interpretation of this classic novel.