Gerald Barry - The Importance of Being Earnest
NI Opera / Wide Open Opera, 2013
Pierre-André Valade, Antony McDonald, Aiofe Miskelly, Jessica Walker, Peter Tantsits, Joshua Bloom, Stephen Richardson, Hilary Summers, Christopher Cull, Olwen Fouéré
Grand Opera House, Belfast - 30 October 2013
Welcome to Barry's world! In Northern Ireland, the name Barry's is probably most associated with a large amusement arcade and fairground ride attraction found in the seaside town of Portrush and formerly also in Bangor. The success of Gerald Barry's opera version of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest obviously has no connection to Barry's Amusements, even if it does often feel something like a wild rollercoaster ride, but there is a sense that you do need to adopt the same sense of childish abandon and leave the real world behind in order to experience the pure exhilaration of sensations that are opened to you in The Importance of Being Earnest.
I have to admit I was sceptical at first. Yes I'd read all the unanimous acclaim when the work was first performed at the Barbican in London last year, and I was aware of all the 5* reviews that this new production - a collaboration between NI Opera and Wide Open Opera - had already received before its arrival at the Grand Opera House in Belfast, but I still wasn't convinced. You see, I had actually heard the work when the Barbican performance was broadcast on BBC Radio 3, and wasn't exactly taken with hearing a cut-down version of Oscar Wilde's witty play raced through at break-neck speed and recited in high-pitched voices that rise and fall in and out of normal speech patterns according to the whims of the wayward orchestration. It was all a bit frantic and a bit mad.
Which of course was clearly the intention, as reports of some of the more outrageously anarchic stage directions that accompany the performance testify. There's the famous scene in which Cecily and Gwendolen converse through megaphones to the accompaniment of smashing plates on every syllable. Then there's Algernon and Jack having a lengthy discourse about the superiority of muffins over teacake sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne. There's Lady Bracknell's outrageous account of Freude, schöner Götterfunken from Beethoven's 9th Symphony. The fact that Lady Bracknell is sung by a bass is in this context not so much of a surprise, since there's often a man cast in the role even in regular performances of Wilde's drama. Just to stretch that even further however - a method that seems to be the by-word for anything to do with this opera - this production even dresses Lady Bracknell as a man.
None of which, I have to say, makes Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest sound any more attractive to a regular opera-goer than the idea of a visit to Barry's Amusements. The Importance of Being Earnest however proves to be an opera in the truest sense of the word. It doesn't stand alone on the music, it has to be seen performed, and more than just seen it has to be experienced. It's a true opera too in the sense that it gets to the heart of the drama and expresses the underlying sentiments though the music and performance far beyond the conventions of superficial drama and the recital of words. It just so happens that Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is a rather absurd comedy and Barry wrings out every single ounce of comedy and absurdity that is inherent within it. To tremendous effect.
NI Opera and Wide Open Opera's production of The Importance of Being Earnest therefore relies greatly on a staging that not only recognises and draws out the absurdity of Barry's interpretation of the work, but it must contribute to it as well. When Lady Bracknell gasps out her shock at the nature of Mr Worthing's parentage - "A hangbag!" - it should have a visual and musical response that is commensurate with the tone. For Barry and Antony McDonald's staging here that takes the form of the bearded lady-gentleman actually vomiting the words into a bucket. And when she complains about the decadence of the French and the worst aspects of the French Revolution, it similarly ought to be accompanied by visual references that match the formidable lady's wildest imaginings and result in a decapitation, at least of a hat from a head (into the vomit bucket) if not actually going as far as to remove any heads. That's about as much restraint as you can expect from this work. I think there was even some twerking here between Gwendolen and Jack "Earnest" Worthing, but honestly I'm not exactly sure what that is.
Again, try as I might, none of this makes The Importance of Being Earnest sound the least bit appealing, but the rightness of it, the sheer compelling brilliance of it as you are actually watching, listening and experiencing it is undeniable. Undoubtedly you gain more from it if you are familiar with Wilde's original comedy and practically know the lines before they are devastatingly and rapidly delivered here. I think Barry expects an audience to have some familiarity with the play or at least some of its unforgettable witticisms, but just in case and for any younger members of the audience (of which there were many - another astonishing coup for an unapologetically contemporary opera), the adapted libretto was helpfully contained in full in the programme.
As for the actual production, you could hardly expect more from the wonderful contemporary-period designs, stage props and backdrop or from the performances. Aoife Miskelly and Peter Tantsits were appropriately sparkingly bright and high as Cecily and Jack, but the work is a comic gift for all the cast, with Stephen Richardson as a scene-stealing Lady Bracknell and Jessica Walker a scene-shattering Gwendolen. A true ensemble piece, Hilary Summers, Christopher Cull and Olwen Fouéré also made fine contributions that worked wonderfully in a work that has considerable challenges of pitch and timing. Comic operas that are funny are rare enough, but to find one where even the music itself is funny is pretty much unique, and Pierre-André Valade and the Crash Ensemble worked wonders in the pit of the Grand Opera House.
This then is opera and comedy at its most compelling in its wit and inventiveness. With so many comic antics, so much humour to pick out of the compressed libretto and so much to enjoy in every scene, you could scarcely take your eyes off the stage or let your concentration drop for even a moment. Not so much in a hyperactive attention seeking kind of way, but in the respect that every single word, phrase, syllable and note holds weight, significance and comedy and you didn't want to miss a single one. The "difficult" music is not so difficult in this way, but completely in the spirit of the work. In fact, while I'm sure that Wilde's comedy drama will hardly ever age or disappear from the stage, it's going to feel rather dry and stuffy to go back to seeing The Importance of Being Earnest performed "straight" after experiencing what Gerald Barry has made of it. That's quite an achievement.