Relentless Earnest – once

16 Jun

Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest has been one of the most hyped new operas.  In his programme notes, Kaspar Holten describes it as the “first great comic opera of the twenty-first century”.  I missed it at the Barbican concert last year so went to see its first staged performance (14th June) at the Linbury studio at the Royal Opera House.

I don’t think anyone can deny that it’s a brilliant piece of work.  Barry’s orchestration is incredibly assured and there are lots of very funny moments – as Gwendolin and Cecily argue, plates are smashed, the instruments scurry and patter and provide a running commentary on the action.  The vocal lines don’t try to set the words – they go at relentless speed or, at tiems, odd emphases are heralded by pauses.  There’s no particular feeling or emotion in the lines – and that rather mimics the play.  It catches the artifice.  Occasionally there are interruptions – both Miss Prism and Lady Bracknell burst into their versions of Schiller’s Ode to Joy – the Worthing/Lady Bracknell scene have a comic duet where they repeat the last lines of their scene.  It’s very precise, very clever.

So why did I find myself resisting it and why did it seem so much more clever in retrospect than when I was actually there?  I think there were a number of reasons.  First, Wilde’s play is wittier – the lines here were cut and it is much, much more open to interpretation.  There was a sense of constant, frenetic haste.  The subtlety and wit of Wilde’s line was permanently being undermined by the music.  I’m sure that it’s very amusing to have Gwendolin and Cecily do their scene through megaphones, but it’s the sort of amusement that you associate with a Sixth Form drama group production – funny once and then you grow out of it.  I’ve been to performances of the Wilde where I’ve found the denouement tender, even moving because you actually believe in the characters and their predicaments – the wit can also be compatible with human emotions.  Barry’s clicking, precise, helter-skelter music doesn’t remotely allow that.  It feels remote and, to be frank, I didn’t laugh much.  I can’t imagine wanting to see it again.

It was very well done.  Tim Murray conducted the Britten Sinfonia in a virtuoso performance.  You couldn’t fault the preparation or the ensemble.  Benedict Nelson gave the best performance that I’ve seen from him as Algernon – catching the insouciance and the ability to push the boundaries.  Paul Curievici, whom I’ve admired before was a young and elegant Worthing.  Stephanie Marshall and Ida Falk Winland were well matched as Cecily and Gwendolin.  Alan Ewing seems to spend much of his time singing Lady Bracknell and, dressed in a man’s business suit, he was about as far away from the convention as you could imagine.  He was fine.  Simon Wilding as the two servants was a faintly menacing presence throughout while Hilary Summers and Geoffrey Dolton gave nice caricatures as Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble.  I don’t think Barry could have asked for a more committed cast.

Ramin Gray directed and decided to set it in contemporary costume.  The orchestra was placed on the stepped stage and there was no set.  A few props – a table, lots of food and different costumes.  It matched the music in its speed and precision.  It missed what the Wilde play is about by a mile, but that probably was the intention.

Am I being mean?  Barry clearly wasn’t wanting to do a conventional setting of the play.  This is, I suppose, a commentary on it, a tribute to it, perhaps.  One composer’s take on it.  Fair enough.  I’m glad to have seen it once but this is a piece about special effects, plate-smashing, megaphones and noise.  Go once and return if you like that sort of thing.



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