I’m not entirely sure what to make of the Royal Opera’s performance of the operatic setting of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest by fellow Irishman Gerald Barry. It was something akin to an aural assault: a dynamic, brash mashup of thoroughly modern soundscape, snatches of recognisable tune, and a late Victorian comedy of manners.
The orchestral explosion was in the excellent hands of the Britten Sinfonia led by Tim Murray, crisply articulating the gaudy, cacophonous score and maintaining a commendable clarity even when there was lots going on. Brass instruments parped and woofed, woodwinds screamed, percussion ran a wide gamut of punctuations, and the orchestra players themselves were co-opted to voice some of the portentous lines. The score quotes liberally but inventively from opera, in varying distorted ways; I couldn’t quite hang on to any of the snippets, except for a hilarious Wagner quotation when the handbag is held aloft by Jack. It makes more extensive use of Auld Lang Syne, not entirely explicably. The most hilarious and effective passage – the argument between Cecily and Gwendolen – is voiced through megaphones whilst being accompanied by the rhythmic smashing of three dozen dinner plates, as if to emphasise the sharp, shattering brittleness of Wilde’s young women.
The libretto is a reduction of the play, occasionally frustrating when you know which lines are omitted, and certainly emphasising the surface ‘cleverness’ of the piece over any deeper undercurrent of social commentary. However, the musical onslaught is so heavy-going, that a shortening is welcome; I found myself momentarily tiring in the 10 minutes or so prior to the Cecily-Gwendolen scene and, after the interval, it was a comfort to know that it was destined to canter to a conclusion inside 35 minutes.
Ramin Gray directed a production that arranged the orchestra diagonally up a stepped stage, with the remainder the main focus of the performing area, but with action mixing in and out of the orchestra space as well. Lighting changes brought clarity to scenes, and simple prop devices were very effective, such as a careful scattering of vases of flowers and a rather less careful scattering of the contents of the tea trolley.
Barry’s break with any (hand-)baggage that the piece may carry is immediately heralded by the casting of Lady Bracknell as a bass-baritone, in this case Alan Ewing in pin-stripe suit, and there is an amusing bravado to simply ignoring any gender-specific libretto references to ‘Mama’, ‘Lady Bracknell’, etc. Ida Falk Winland gives Cecily a rather terrifyingly ‘knowing’ teenage aggression, with a forthright soprano; Stephanie Marshall’s Gwendolen is suitably crisp and troublesome, commanding whilst being accompanied by smashing plates. Paul Curievici and Benedict Nelson give life to Jack and Algernon, though clearly dominated by the women around them. The most wonderfully vivid character is the Miss Prism of Hilary Summers: a completely bonkers, mobile-faced League of Gentlemen-style eccentric. Simon Wilding helped organise the stage as Lane/Merriman, and Geoffrey Dolton, replete with cycle helmet and high-vis sash to complement his dog collar, was Canon Chasuble.
I wouldn’t want to listen to it at home, and I wouldn’t want to hear it too often in the theatre, but it was a daring, brash, dislocating adaptation of one of the Victorian era’s most disruptive plays. To be seen (and heard) for sure, but have a hefty glass of something, take a deep breath, and just let it do its thing at you…