Thursday, 31 March 2016

Through Irish eyes: the silliness of English mores in Gerald Barry's crazy version of Wilde's play

Gerald Barry - The Importance of Being Earnest - © ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
Gerald Barry - The Importance of Being Earnest - © ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
Gerald Barry The Importance of Being Earnest; Paul Curievici, Benedict Nelson, Kevin West, Simon Wilding, Alan Ewing, Stephanie Marshall, Claudia Boyle, Hilary Summers, dir: Ramin Gray, cond: Tim Murray, Britten Sinfonia; Royal Opera House at the Barbican Theatre
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Mar 13 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Wilde's play re-invented, with Barry's eclectic music in a fun, if somewhat breathless evening

Alan Ewing, Stephanie Marshall, Kevin West, Hilary Summers - Importance of Being Earnest - © ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
Alan Ewing, Stephanie Marshall, Kevin West, Hilary Summers
© ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
All sorts of things happen to well-loved pieces when they are translated to the operatic stage: Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Otello were stripped down and given a new immediacy by Verdi, while John Luther Long’s short story Madame Butterfly would not have had much of an impact had it not been for Puccini. But Oscar Wilde’s 'serious play for trivial people' may be considered unimprovable. The Importance of Being Earnest was premiered in 1895, and its commentary on Victorian mores, its larger-than-life characters, its silliness and its ubiquitous quotes still seem to be everyday currency in the Anglophone world.

Gerald Barry's operatic treatment brings the obsession with money, breeding and image up to date, adds another layer of visual and aural silliness and keeps the handbag 'gag' (literally, as Lady Bracknell did in fact gag as s/he uttered the famous line) as well as many other characteristics of a certain type of Englishness filtered by an Irishman.

Barry’s opera had its European premiere at the Barbican Hall in 2012 and was first staged at Covent Garden's Linbury Theatre in 2013. It is now back at the Barbican Theatre (seen on 29 March 2016), with most of its original cast, before heading to the Rose Theater, New York, in June. Directed by Ramin Gray and conducted by Tim Murray, costumes by Christina Cunningham, associated set design by Ben Clark, after an idea by Johannes Schütz, and lighting by Franz Peter David, with Paul Curievici, Benedict Nelson, Kevin West, Simon Wilding, Alan Ewing, Stephanie Marshall, Claudia Boyle and Hilary Summers. The Britten Sinfonia was in the pit.



Simon Wilding, Benedict Nelson, Claudia Boyle - The Importance of Being Earnest - © ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
Simon Wilding, Benedict Nelson, Claudia Boyle
© ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
The stage was a doorless box, raked with a shallow staircase, the orchestra placed stage left and across the top. Entrances and exits for the cast were from the front row of the audience seats. There were a huge number of props including megaphones, green carnations (as worn by Wilde at the opening night of the show) that were used to evoke the countryside and doubled as microphones, a clothes rack that was wheeled across to reveal Miss Prism standing reading her German grammar book, a clattering tea trolley and a rack of plates. Modern costumes clearly differentiated the characters: Algernon’s scruffy jeans and Jack’s nerdy clothes; Gwendolen’s sensible frock and Cecily’s girly shorts; Miss Prism’s floaty purple get-up and Dr Chasuble’s middle-aged urban cyclist complete with helmet and fluorescent sash. Lady Bracknell wore a grey business suit. Cigarettes with green lights on the end were smoked, much tea was drunk and muffins were eaten or thrown.

The music was eclectic and mainly bonkers. The Britten Sinfonia consisted of a string quintet with brass (and outrageously long trill from the horns) and wind and a huge array of percussion including wind machine and the aforementioned plates, smashed to the ground in time to conductor Tim Murray’s beat. The players stamped and shouted and participated fully and visibly in the proceedings. We recognised ‘Auld Lang Syne’ second time around and the words of Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’, though when it came to Miss Prism’s rendition the surtitle economically said ‘Miss Prism sings her own arrangement of Freude, schöner Götterfunken’.

The libretto was also Barry’s and he kept many of Wilde’s lines (about losing one’s parents, three addresses inspiring confidence, the worthlessness of education and Lady Bracknell’s eugenics-tinged hysteria) showing how the Victorian hypocrisy parodied by Wilde is just as recognisable today. He uses opera conventions: the ballet which is transformed into a crazy Irish(-ish) jig; the ingénue soprano (Claudia Boyle, whose stratospheric lines could only be read from the surtitles, not heard), the sensible mezzo (Stephanie Marshall), the headstrong tenor (Paul Curievici) and casual baritone (Benedict Nelson), and the pompous bass (Alan Ewing as Lady Bracknell).

Stephanie Marshall - The Importance of Being Earnest - © ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
Stephanie Marshall - The Importance of Being Earnest - © ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
It was a fun, somewhat breathless evening. I suspect most in the audience are familiar with the Wilde and many of the operatic archetypes – though it would be interesting to know what any opera novices made of it. I overheard in the audience a woman telling her friends it was her first opera. One of her friends said Oh, all the operas are like this’.
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford

The Importance of Being Earnest. Royal Opera and Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican Theatre, 29th March 2016

Creative team
Music and libretto by Gerald Barry
Conducted by Tim Murray
Directed by Ramin Gray
Associate set design by Ben Clark, after an idea by Johannes Schütz
Costumes by Christina Cunningham
Lighting by Franz Peter David
Movement by Leon Baugh
Orchestra Britten Sinfonia

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

Recommended recording:
Gerald Barry: The Importance of Being Earnest - Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Thomas Ades, NMC Recordings
Elsewhere on this blog:

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