The decay of a picture and an experiment with danced characters with voice

Dancers on the stage instead of singers in a new opera

Normally it is a part of experiencing opera to see and hear the singers on the stage, to perceive them physically, as it were. In Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen’s new opera “The Picture of Dorian Gray” about the strikingly beautiful favourite who enters into a pact about eternal youth in return for allowing his portrait fall into decay and in this way reflect his fearsome way of life – in this opera there are no singers on the stage. Instead dancers perform as the singers’ “prolonged voices” while the music as a whole comes from the orchestra pit and partly through loudspeakers. One just has to get used to this.

Furthermore one has to come to terms with the fact that the opera (which is sung in English) has no surtitles. This is an artistic choice, of course, but the few projected sentences from the dialogue are not enough. The action takes place in London, but we are a mostly Danish audience in Aarhus and have probably not all read the libretto on the Opera’s home page.

As a “choreographed opera”, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is a very exciting experience – immediate and at the same time challenging. On the music side Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen – not unexpectedly - delivers a score which bears his unmistakeable stamp of accessibility with a twist. Historically well-known expressions, orchestrations and melodic lines – whether it be late-romanticism, film or musical music – all get a look-in. Tremendously competent, with or without the ironic distance which a present-day listener otherwise can experience or project. One enjoys the unmistakeable fragrance of Richard Strauss, is captivated by the symphonic ragtime-feeling and catches glimpses of Disney-musical - only better than Disney.

Beautiful, well composed, delicious. And then even so: the musical easy-chair feeling is disturbed. Partly by sinister orchestral outpourings, partly by the presence of a special string group whose function is to comment and ponder and be a shadow in a completely different style – slightly out of tune, improvising in a slightly diabolical fashion. Not everything is perfect here – on the surface, with Dorian Gray. Under the baton of Joachim Gustafsson everything is played with bravura. 

The singers stand in the orchestra pit and bear microphones. This gives a different sound picture than that of the traditional opera production: we hear a mix. The singers are all excellent – and very different: from the familiar heroic and roguish baritones to the counter tenor and pop-folk singer. The latter two portray the main character Dorian Gray and Sibyl Vane, the actress – who believes in the goodness of love, but becomes its victim.

As already mentioned, one needs to accustom oneself to seeing dancers act as an extension of the voices, and it was a challenge – also for the dancers, when the body also mimics. The dancers participating are carefully chosen and cover the characters wholly convincingly, I think. By including a special dwarf figure, “The Inner Man”, the choreographer Marie Brolin-Tani has given us an exciting extra dimension in order to understand the main characters, their psychology and conflicts. For the most part the singers’ dancing is choreographed in a modern expression combined with features of more classical dancing. The larger ensembles, also the more dramatic and directly repulsive, have a fine profile in a well-functioning scenography, stage lighting and video projection, which frame Dorian Gray’s portrait as a central form figure.

For repulsive it is, the plot. The decadence, homosexuality and hedonism in Oscar Wilde’s novel are, I suppose – in spite of aphoristic elegance – a form of Gothicism which it is hard to accept today. On the other hand one can view the opera as an entertaining and relevant attempt to present a problem many people grapple with today: the fear of death and the perfect life linked with this, which is without any connection with life as it really is.

With this season’s opening production, The Danish National Opera gives its audience the possibility of seeing something which is not an everyday experience – an experiment and a praiseworthy stake on something new in the opera genre as well as its special, sensual qualities.

See and hear the production, do your “homework” first!

Ole Straarup, Aarhus Stiftstidende 24/8 ´13

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