The Importance of Being Earnest, a new opera based on Oscar Wilde’s text and with music and libretto by Gerald Barry, had its U.S. stage premiere as part of the NY Phil Biennial. People are creating operas based on just about anything these days (The Fly, anyone?), so I wasn’t surprised to hear about Gerald Barry’s new work. But I had doubts.
Wilde’s famous farce wouldn’t seem at first blush to be optimal material for opera. Its story is silly enough, but though its characters are deeply memorable, they don’t have much depth.
Yet Wilde’s comedy of mistaken-identity manners turns out to be a perfect fit for Barry’s jolly, quirky music, and The Royal Opera‘s production under director Ramin Gray mirrors the twisted musical setting with an off-the-wall stepped-set staging.
I’ve seen the word “surrealistic” applied to this opera, and the production does have some dreamlike qualities. But “Dada” more accurately describes many of the creative choices here. Seemingly random pauses punctuated by instrumental accents interrupt sung lines. Apparently unmotivated dance sequences and blocking shape the proceedings. “Auld Lang Syne” is woven throughout, beginning with a serialist-style piano rendition that pings the ear as cacophony before the familiar melody seeps into one’s consciousness.
The score also includes two unexplained and seemingly irrelevant insertions of new musical settings (in German) of Schiller’s “Freude, schöner Götterfunken” – the lyrics popularly known as the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Lady Bracknell is played by a baritone – the solid and sober Alan Ewing – dressed in a conservative man’s suit, not at all the Dame Edna-type character I anticipated when I read how Barry had written the role.
It all creates a “just for the fun of it” atmosphere that dovetails nicely with Wilde’s delightfully nutty story. Yet all is not random, even if we aren’t meant to follow all the connections. Explosive bursts from the trombone punctuate the line “There is very little music in the name Jack, if any at all,” sung by Gwendolen Fairfax (Stephanie Marshall in fine voice). The score creates an invisible presence of bees that Cecily Cardew (Claudia Boyle, showing off an incredible high register to great comic effect) chases after with a large net. A slacker take on Algernon (by baritone Benedict Nelson) wears headphones at the start. Rev. Chasuble (Kevin West) sports a bicycle helmet and a neck brace.
And – why not? – dishes are rhythmically smashed.
The whole staging points up the importance of Lady Bracknell’s line “We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces.” The stage slopes upward, backing away from the audience in a series of narrow steps – long, meaningless surfaces that nonetheless dictate the action. The plot hinges, after all, on the importance Gwendolen and Cecily place on a man’s first name. And isn’t writing Lady Bracknell for a male performer really just a change in surface? The music and staging make arch comments on surfaces both literal and mental.
Rounding out the fine cast are tenor Paul Curievici as a winning John Worthing and contralto Hilary Summers as a very droll Miss Prism. With marvelous timing and superb voices, the singers dart and slither through the stream of surprises and delights in Barry’s jittery music. Similarly impressive are conductor Ilan Volkov and a confidently jolly chamber orchestra that’s punchy, precise, and funny, dominated, as the score dictates, by a crackerjack brass section.
Peter Raby’s program notes point out that W.H. Auden called Wilde’s play “the only pure verbal opera in English.” Barry and The Royal Opera have taken that idea and run with it, slipping and sliding to a happy ending. My only disappointment was in the relative thinness of the after-intermission action (the play’s three acts are reduced to two here). The second “half” feels temporally and dramatically compressed, as if hastily finished.
Better to leave us wanting more than wanting less, though. As “Mouth” says in Tristan Tzara’s dadaist play The Gas Heart, “I don’t mean to say anything. A long time ago I put everything I had to say in a hatbox.” In this modern take on the evergreen The Importance of Being Earnest, Gerald Barry’s intent is as likely stuffed under Rev. Chasuble’s bike helmet as anywhere.