Opera Magazine

The Picture of Dorian Gray, Olesen (DVD)

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 popular-music background from which she was plucked, she makes wonderful sense of some of the most striking music in the opera.

Christopher Ballantine, Opera Magazine March 2017


TheWholeNote

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The ideas behind this DVD made me curious because, as a longtime operagoer, I wondered how you could have an opera choreographed and with the singers offstage. The Picture of Dorian Gray succeeds on both counts and throws in more appealing aspects to boot. The Oscar Wilde story is rife with juicy themes around secrets, corruption, the role of art and, of course, the Mephistophelian premise of Dorian Gray selling his soul in exchange for eternal beauty and youth. The production of Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen’s opera has plenty of eye and ear candy that doesn’t discombobulate the viewer with unstaged singers as much as highlight them. Cutaways to singers in the orchestra pit are as intriguing as Met in HD backstage entr’actes. The transformation of the picture of Dorian Gray is effectively conveyed with video art, replacing the need for extensive set use, and the costumes range from modified period pieces to something out of Cirque du Soleil. Although I don’t have much knowledge of dance, I could appreciate this non-literal interpretation of the tale, which shared the dual role of representing the characters’ sung parts, which was stage director/choreographer Marie Brolin-Tani’s goal. Surprisingly, spoken lines and frequent Broadwaymusical-like interludes did not make me protest that this was not opera. The entire production somehow coalesces into a new multi-art genre, and whether that is due to the direction, choreography, score, artists or all of those, it was the type of offering CanStage might co-present. Hmm – must text Matthew Jocelyn…

Vanessa Wells, TheWholeNote, 25/10 2016


Opera News

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.

Joshua Rosenblum, Opera News, vol. 81 no. 8