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Production photo by Stephen Cummiskey
31 Mar 2016

The Importance of Being Earnest, Royal Opera

‘All men become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That is his.’ ‘Is that clever?’ ‘It is perfectly phrased!’

The Importance of Being Earnest, Royal Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Production photo by Stephen Cummiskey


Oscar Wilde is the aristocrat of aphorists: a master of barbed eloquence. In his 2011 opera based on Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Irish composer Gerald Barry treats Wilde as the ultimate Tweeter and takes machete, sledge-hammer and jack-boot to the playwright’s perfectly phrased blend of realism and aestheticism. The result is a libretto that leaps hysterically from one soundbite to another, accompanied by a pastiche score which romps through a succession of musical idioms from serialism to a cacophonous piano-version of Auld Lang Syne, from Mahler to French revolutionary song.

Moreover, having cut two-thirds of Wilde’s text, Barry then musically murders what remains. Rather than singing with the smooth lyricism of Wilde’s supremely distilled verbal pearls, Barry’s characters deliver the text in a stilted idiom which wrenches syllables apart and strangles syntax: ‘The truth … is rare … ly … pure … and ne … ver sim … PLE’. Jack’s well-mannered avowal, ‘I am in love with Gwendolen. I have come up to town expressly to propose to her.’ becomes a manic yelp, ‘I want to marry Gwendolen!’ Even the play’s most celebrated charms are not spared: the arch symmetry of Lady Bracknell’s caustic quip, ‘To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness’, is reduced to the bland, ‘You’ve lost them both! That looks careless.’

The fact that Wilde’s play ‘survives’ is a testament to its brilliance. Indeed, it is Wilde — albeit in the form of brutally truncated surtitles — who inspires the opera’s few laughs, not Barry.

Wilde’s wit is simultaneously an exemplary reflection of his liberal education, the embodiment of his decadent aestheticism, and a quixotic subversion of social conventions. It may debunk — spotlighting hypocrisy and contradiction — but it does not condemn the society by which it has been engendered. Barry removes the very propriety with which Wilde toys so wickedly; and without the ‘manners’ there is nothing to mock, no barriers to cross.

Thus, accused of calmly eating muffins, Algernon urbanely munches, ‘Well, I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs.’ But, one can hardly imagine that the slouching Algernon would be so precious about canvas fatigues and Hawaiian shirt. With improbable irreverence, the composite Lane/Merriman — Barry seems to make no distinction although Wilde denotes that the former is Algernon’s manservant while Merriman is Jack’s country butler, a hierarchical distinction that Edwardians would have appreciated — violently hacks a cucumber, stuffs himself with Algernon’s sandwiches, and tosses cigarette cases and muffins about the stage.

The breakneck pace and textual excisions means that urbanity is replaced by aggression. Coyness and decorum have no place in Barry’s courtships, and the girls throw themselves at their beaus with wild abandon. There is no doubt that the girls are on top. In Wilde’s play, encountering her future son-in-law ‘mid-proposal’ Lady Bracknell urges Jack to rise from his indecorous ‘semi-recumbent posture’, but he is restrained by Gwendolen who wants to eke out the moment of adulation. Barry’s Jack sprawls prone, pinned down and perched upon. Similarly Cecily ensnares Algernon with a butterfly neck and brusquely drags him off.

The brittle shallowness of the girls’ exchange of social niceties over tea and cake is replaced by bludgeoning by megaphone, as Gwendolen and Cecily yell insults (in one of the opera’s several long episodes of spoken text) to the ear-splitting accompaniment of 40 plates breaking. And, if there’s little respect for the crockery, then the clergy come off no better: Canon Chasuble’s high-vis stripes and helmet prove no protection from racing ne’er-do-wells and, knocked from his bicycle, he spends the rest of the opera jovially sporting a neck-brace.

Does it matter that Lady Bracknell commands Gwendolen to remain in the ‘carriage’ while sending a text message? That smartphones rather than leather-bound library tomes yield Jack’s real name from the Army Lists — and that during the latter search, the cast repeatedly, and inexplicably cry, ‘Explosion!’? Proponents would surely argue that I am missing the point: that Wilde’s play is a hodgepodge of evanescent epigrams that amount to nothing, which finds its equal in Barry’s hyperventilating surrealism.

The set is fittingly Beckettian. Director Ramin Gray and Ben Clark, the Associate Set Designer, present a black box lit in random primary colours by glaring strobes. The Britten Sinfonia sprawl at the rear and to the left of the raked stage; the cast, seated at the front of the Theatre, mount the steps onto the stage. Climbing these steps seems to become ever more arduous and by Act 3, they resort to literally crawling and sliding on their bellies to get the action underway. Props are minimal: two tea-trollies and a table strewn with cut flowers, waiting for Miss Prism to plant them in the garden, suffice. A clothes rail, whisked across the stage by Lane/Merriman, miraculously releases Mrs Prism and sucks up Jack between Acts 1 and 2, producing a titter that relieves an awkward silence between the two acts.

It might be argued that Barry retains Wilde self-parodic mode. Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism both show a fanatical zeal for Schiller, and offer up their own settings of the ‘Ode to Joy’; Algernon and Jack adopt a stringent atonal seriousness for the most trivial bickering about muffins and teacakes. Is Barry puncturing musical pretentiousness?

Elsewhere though, pseudo-satirical musical touches seem to have little to do with the plot. Lady Bracknell’s assertion that she cannot possibly allow ‘vulgar’ French songs at her Saturday reception is the cue for the Britten Sinfonia, bathed in a Revolutionary red glow, to break out into a French military anthem. The absurdity of the notion that Jack should ‘acquire some relations’ is embodied by the farcical Irish jig in which he and Lady Bracknell indulge — no laughing matter on a precipitous stage strewn with cucumber peel. The bee that pesters Miss Prism in the garden is conjured by fantastic high double-trilling from the horns, doffing a hat to Rimsky-Korsakov. The merest mention of Bunbury sends Algernon and Lady Bracknell into flights of falsetto. Cecily’s stratospheric twittering presumably exemplifies her air-headedness. I’m not sure whether Barry is parodying Wilde’s parody, lampooning or imitating, deconstructing or paying homage; but, in any case, such musical moments seem merely coloristic — I didn’t sense any musico-dramatic argument.

However, it should be noted that since its 2011 Los Angeles concert premiere, Barry’s opera has been heard and staged in London and Nancy, to considerable acclaim; it won the Royal Society Award for best large-scale composition in 2013. So, clearly others do not share my disapprobation.

And certainly the cast — many reprising roles that they performed at the Barbican in 2013 — coped more than admirably with the vocal challenges that Barry throws at them. Tenor Paul Curievici did not allow Jack’s agitation and anxiety to produce vocal tension, and exhibited a light but focused sound, particularly at the top where Barry’s lines do not offer many lyrical moments. Forming a neat double-act with Curievici, Benedict Nelson was a debonair Algernon (vocally, if not sartorially).

Canadian Stephanie Marshall confidently used her vivid mezzo-soprano to convey Gwendolen’s vivacity and feistiness, while Cecily’s petulant spiritedness was expertly captured by Irish soprano Claudia Boyle, who had no trouble with the taxing high register or hysterical coloratura. She floated the opening statement of Act 3, ‘They have been eating muffins’, with wonderful faux-Wagnerian pretention. Boyle also delivered the spoken text with comic flair, prancing nattily in lurid green hot-pants and white platform-boots. The role of Miss Prism also demands its performer to range high and low, and Hilary Summers was both convincingly ‘butch’ when cajoling Cecily about the joys of German grammar and impressively fanciful, soaring whimsically, when recollecting the sentimental three-volume work of fiction which she absentmindedly placed in the perambulator.

As a pin-striped Lady Bracknell, Irish bass Alan Ewing was imposing of posture and thunderous of voice. Simon Wilding’s Lane/Merriman scowled implacably, and hung about with the disdainful menace of an extra in a gangster movie, while Kevin West’s Canon Chasuble was affably distracted.

Conductor Tim Murray kept an impressively tight grip on the musical mayhem, and the players of the Britten Sinfonia not only negotiated the tricky score with aplomb but also entered into the spirit of the chaotic proceedings, contributing some feisty collective foot-stamping and a vociferous mechanical chorus, ‘Where is that baby?’

One critic pertinently observed, ‘We cannot be Wilde, as his genius is beyond us, but we need to be as Wildean as possible in writing about him’. In the closing moments of Barry’s opera, Jack realises ‘for the first time in my life, the vital importance of being Ernest [sic]’. Wilde’s aphorisms are a playful pursuit of knowledge; they reflect the realities of fragmented social interaction. Barry’s mundanities are nowhere near so revelatory, explosive or memorable. His opera dispenses with the importance of being earnest.

Claire Seymour

Gerald Barry : The Importance of Being Earnest

Algernon Moncrieff — Benedict Nelson, John Worthing —Paul Curievici, Cecily Cardew —Claudia Boyle, Gwendolen Fairfax —Stephanie Marshall, Lady Bracknell — Alan Ewing, Miss Prism - Hilary Summers, Lane/Merriman — Simon Wilding, Rev. Canon Chasuble — Kevin West;

Director - Ramin Gray, Conductor —Tim Murray, Associate Set Designer —Ben Clark, Costume designer —Christina Cunningham, Lighting designer —Franz Peter David, Movement — Leon Baugh, Britten Sinfonia.

Barbican Theatre, London, Tuesday 29th March 2016

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