18 Jun 2013

The Importance of Being Earnest, Covent Garden

The Importance of Being Earnest , Gerald Barry’s fifth opera, was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the Barbican, and was first performed in concert, Thomas Adès conducting the London premiere.

This production marks the first London staging, though the honour of the first staging went to Nancy’s Opéra national de Lorraine. It may be considered a resounding success, perhaps all the more surprising given the paucity of worthwhile comic operas. (The inability of stage directors to distinguish between the comic and comedy as a form is one of the greatest banes of an opera-goer’s life, but let us leave that on one side for the moment.)

Barry may have studied with Stockhausen but it is his study with Mauricio Kagel that comes to mind here, in the work’s anarchic — though, in its compositional control decidedly not anarchistic — irreverence. An almost Dadaistic sensibility perhaps also brings to mind the Ligeti of Aventures and Nouvelles aventures; smashing of plates, forty of them, must surely offer a reference, perhaps even an hommage. Humour arises not just from Wilde’s play and what Barry does with or to it, but also from the interaction of ‘action’ and music, seemingly autonomous, until one has decided that it is definitely is, at which point it tempts one to think that it might have something in common with the text after all. Parody, for instance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, whether its opening or the ‘Ode to Joy’, and of Auld Lang Syne, almost inevitably recalls Peter Maxwell Davies, but I am not sure that the method is actually so very similar. For one thing, it seems more to be the tunes themselves that in some strange sense are forming the drama; words at times follow Auld Lang Syne rather than vice versa, resulting in a cyclical process one might — or might not — consider to be a parody of serialism. (I did, but I have no idea whether that were intended.) Stravinskian motor-rhythms power the music along, until it stops — or are they still doing so? And just occasionally, the poster-paint aggression — or is it an affectionate parody thereof? — seems to melt into something more tender. But is that merely wish-fulfilment on the spectator’s part? Is the joke on the audience?

Ramin Gray’s production seems to operate in a similar or at least parallel fashion. There are interactions, for instance when the loudspeaker music plays from Algernon’s iPhone. And the action is cut, stopped, made to continue according to some ticking imperative. Moments impress, stick in the memory, for instance the case of co-ordinated tea-drinking. One begins to ask what they ‘mean’, but already knows or at least fears that one is asking the wrong question. Surrealism, or something like it, becomes genuinely funny. Or is it that the funny becomes genuinely surreal? Modern dress works well, banishing any thought that period ‘absurdity’ might heighten the farce, if that be what it is. For disjuncture, by its very nature, continues to bring us up short. Alienation, in work and in staging, both distances and yet brings us tantalisingly close. For, despite or even on account of the artificiality, one senses a deep humanity lying somewhere beneath. (Perhaps like Wilde; perhaps not.)

The Britten Sinfonia under Tim Murray proves at least an equal partner to the madness. Brashly rhythmic, lovingly precise, this is an estimable performance throughout from an ensemble whose versatility seems yet to extend itself with every year. That the players are called upon to shout and to stamp their feet almost seems expected. Paul Curievici impresses with great musicality as Jack Worthing, or whatever we want to call him, Benedict Nelson a bluff foil as Algie. Hilary Summers, surely as versatile an artist as the Britten Sinfonia, makes excellent use of her contralto range and tone as Miss Prism, with a splendidly complementary stage gawkiness. Stephanie Marshall’s Gwendolen and Ida Falk Winland’s Cecily shine on the mezzo and soprano fronts, the former often warmly lyrical, the latter seemingly effortless in the aggressively higher reaches of her range. Simon Wilding’s Lane and Merriman offer a nice hint of rebellion, nevertheless handsomely despatched. Meanwhile, Lady Bracknell is played by a bass, not in drag but in a suitably ghastly barrister pinstripe; Alan Ewing rises to the occasion, and somehow seems more real than much of the chaos around him. The cast, as the cliché has it, proves more than the sum of its parts, as is the performance as a whole, however awkward that fitting together or clashing of those parts may be.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

John Worthing: Paul Curievici; Revd Canon Chasuble: Geoffrey Dolton; Lady Brachnell: Alan Ewing; Gwendolen Fairfax: Stephanie Marshall; Algernon Moncrieff: Benedict Nelson; Miss Prism: Hilary Summers; Lane/Merriman: Simon Wilding; Cecily: Ida Falk WInland. Director: Ramin Gray; Associate Designer: Ben Clark (after an idea by Johannes Schütz); Lighting: Franz Peter David; Costumes: Christina Cunningham. Britten Sinfonia/Tim Murray. Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Monday 17 June 2013.