Irish-born composer Gerald Barry’s opera The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People has been brought to supernaturally vivid life in a sold-out UK stage première, directed by Ramin Gray and performed at the London Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre from 14-22 June 2013. Paring down the play’s daintily disguised satire by two thirds (Wilde devotees, look away now), Barry sets his own libretto in such a way that blasts forward in brazen Technicolor, an effect complemented by this production’s stark and luminous aesthetic. Since its celebrated Los Angeles concert première in 2011, and subsequent UK concert performances (after which the composition was likened by Stephen Fry to “taking a machete to a soufflé”), the opera world, refreshed by the concept of a great contemporary piece that isn’t a tragedy, has eagerly anticipated a fully staged production of Barry’s smashing operatic adaptation of the 1895 Oscar Wilde comedy.
I was fortunate enough to witness one of those early concert performances given by the trailblazing Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in 2012. It was clear that, even before being staged, Barry’s highly sophisticated operatic score was already terrific music theatre. This potential did not go unnoticed amongst the leading opera companies, with many hoping to confirm their credibility by quickly snapping up the three-act adaptation.
Gray’s response to this absurd masterwork was to take a subtle approach to staging, with the set consisting of little more than downward steps, a table and a clothing rail (holding additions to the boldly modern costume design), and the limited number of props mostly ending up in a mess on the floor. This production does away with wings or exits, and the performers make their entrances (on the whole) by climbing up, in a Beckettian manner, from front-row seats.
Barry, a winner of the Royal Philharmonic Society award for Large-Scale Composition, begins with a pre-recorded piano prologue based on a chaotic interpretation of “Auld Lang Syne”, which he revealed to be a tribute to the late Los Angeles patron Betty Freeman, and that melody has a disarmingly funny way of popping up at the most unforeseen moments. Later in the piece we are also treated to discombobulated chunks of Beethoven, along with a bit of French Revolutionary song thrown in for good measure.
This heterogeneous musical idiom is continued throughout the 90-minute score. Jack (Paul Curievici) and Algernon’s (Benedict Nelson) first cucumber-sandwich-themed duet is set to a splintered 12-tone melodic line with little concern for vocal range or comfort, an integral part of the music’s instant comedy. Barry moves swiftly on from Second Viennese School parody to other modes of composition, including the Sprechstimme of Gwendolen (Stephanie Marshall) and Cecily’s (Ida Falk Winland) already quite legendary Act II dispute/duet, delivered through megaphones and accompanied by the inventive mixed media of mallets, pistols, jackboots and smashing plates.
Barry has openly confessed to lacking “a well-developed sense of knowing what is appropriate or inappropriate” and, to our delight, this can certainly be perceived in his latest work. His hysterical settings of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” proving to be a hilarious example, particularly when sung in Lady Bracknell’s (Alan Ewing) booming bass, transformed via her musical preferences in the original text into an old Prussian Matriarchin expectorating German in something of a Nuremberg rally tirade.
In a way, Barry’s score aptly mirror’s Wilde’s text in that, for the writing of the play, the latter treats “all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality”. Barry, in turn, makes a mockery of operatic conventions and normalises nonsense, lacing his score with undignified rhythmical lunges. The music does not provide subtle context, but rather an unavoidable thrust forward. At the same time, its absurdities pull against the neat precision of Wilde’s words creating the most delectable form of dramatic tension.
In fact, it is these contradictions that give the piece its power. Barry throws all consideration for the natural rhythmic stresses of the English language out of the window and consistently partners text with a melodic line that leads it astray. The end result emphasises both music and, believe it or not, text, which is surprisingly coherent (although we were also treated, in this instance, to large projected surtitles). This friction between Barry’s frenetic music, the absurdity of the situation and his rapid-fire delivery of Wilde’s text highlights the artificial thought-processes of the characters, it keeps us alert, and has an innate comedy all of its own.
Barry’s musical language remains unpretentious, embracing the likes of Stravinsky and Schoenberg whilst also treating them with derision. Britten Sinfonia, superbly conducted by Tim Murray and treated in this production to the stage presence it deserves, came close to stealing the show through the energy of its performance and its tongue-in-cheek delivery, particularly during those moments when Barry calls on the orchestra to act as a monotonously chanting Greek chorus. The solo performances were unvaryingly convincing, particularly Hilary Summers’ frenzied Miss Prism, and each singer a joy to watch.
Although the Royal Opera House production wowed, I still feel that this highly fertile composition yearns for further imaginative investigations. Gray’s dramatic games, and the agitated snap cues of Franz Peter David’s lighting design still struggled to match the marvellous impertinence of the music, and at times even distracted from it. Would it have, in fact, been funnier if the performers had been dressed in frigid period costume? Perhaps. That is yet to be seen, as I’m sure it will be in future interpretations of this outstanding modern comic opera, which stands to be the most imaginative Wilde opera since Richard Strauss’ Salome, more than a century ago.