The Importance of Being Earnest, Covent Garden

This production marks the first London staging, though the honour of the first
staging went to Nancy’s OpÈra national de Lorraine. It may be considered a
resounding success, perhaps all the more surprising given the paucity of
worthwhile comic operas. (The inability of stage directors to distinguish
between the comic and comedy as a form is one of the greatest banes of an
opera-goer’s life, but let us leave that on one side for the moment.)

Barry may have studied with Stockhausen but it is his study with Mauricio
Kagel that comes to mind here, in the work’s anarchic — though, in its
compositional control decidedly not anarchistic — irreverence. An almost
Dadaistic sensibility perhaps also brings to mind the Ligeti of Aventures
and Nouvelles aventures; smashing of plates, forty of them, must
surely offer a reference, perhaps even an hommage. Humour arises not
just from Wilde’s play and what Barry does with or to it, but also from the
interaction of ‘action’ and music, seemingly autonomous, until one has
decided that it is definitely is, at which point it tempts one to think that it
might have something in common with the text after all. Parody, for instance of
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, whether its opening or the ‘Ode to Joy’, and
of Auld Lang Syne, almost inevitably recalls Peter Maxwell Davies, but
I am not sure that the method is actually so very similar. For one thing, it
seems more to be the tunes themselves that in some strange sense are forming
the drama; words at times follow Auld Lang Syne rather than vice
, resulting in a cyclical process one might — or might not —
consider to be a parody of serialism. (I did, but I have no idea whether that
were intended.) Stravinskian motor-rhythms power the music along, until it
stops — or are they still doing so? And just occasionally, the poster-paint
aggression — or is it an affectionate parody thereof? — seems to melt into
something more tender. But is that merely wish-fulfilment on the spectator’s
part? Is the joke on the audience?

Ramin Gray’s production seems to operate in a similar or at least parallel
fashion. There are interactions, for instance when the loudspeaker music plays
from Algernon’s iPhone. And the action is cut, stopped, made to continue
according to some ticking imperative. Moments impress, stick in the memory, for
instance the case of co-ordinated tea-drinking. One begins to ask what they
‘mean’, but already knows or at least fears that one is asking the wrong
question. Surrealism, or something like it, becomes genuinely funny. Or is it
that the funny becomes genuinely surreal? Modern dress works well, banishing
any thought that period ‘absurdity’ might heighten the farce, if that be
what it is. For disjuncture, by its very nature, continues to bring us up
short. Alienation, in work and in staging, both distances and yet brings us
tantalisingly close. For, despite or even on account of the artificiality, one
senses a deep humanity lying somewhere beneath. (Perhaps like Wilde; perhaps

The Britten Sinfonia under Tim Murray proves at least an equal partner to
the madness. Brashly rhythmic, lovingly precise, this is an estimable
performance throughout from an ensemble whose versatility seems yet to extend
itself with every year. That the players are called upon to shout and to stamp
their feet almost seems expected. Paul Curievici impresses with great
musicality as Jack Worthing, or whatever we want to call him, Benedict Nelson a
bluff foil as Algie. Hilary Summers, surely as versatile an artist as the
Britten Sinfonia, makes excellent use of her contralto range and tone as Miss
Prism, with a splendidly complementary stage gawkiness. Stephanie Marshall’s
Gwendolen and Ida Falk Winland’s Cecily shine on the mezzo and soprano
fronts, the former often warmly lyrical, the latter seemingly effortless in the
aggressively higher reaches of her range. Simon Wilding’s Lane and Merriman
offer a nice hint of rebellion, nevertheless handsomely despatched. Meanwhile,
Lady Bracknell is played by a bass, not in drag but in a suitably ghastly
barrister pinstripe; Alan Ewing rises to the occasion, and somehow seems more
real than much of the chaos around him. The cast, as the clichÈ has it, proves
more than the sum of its parts, as is the performance as a whole, however
awkward that fitting together or clashing of those parts may be.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

John Worthing: Paul Curievici; Revd Canon Chasuble: Geoffrey Dolton;
Lady Brachnell: Alan Ewing; Gwendolen Fairfax: Stephanie Marshall; Algernon
Moncrieff: Benedict Nelson; Miss Prism: Hilary Summers; Lane/Merriman: Simon
Wilding; Cecily: Ida Falk WInland. Director: Ramin Gray; Associate Designer:
Ben Clark (after an idea by Johannes Sch¸tz); Lighting: Franz Peter David;
Costumes: Christina Cunningham. Britten Sinfonia/Tim Murray. Linbury Studio
Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Monday 17 June 2013.

image_description=Full cast of The Importance of Being Earnest [Photo © ROH / Stephen Cummiskey]
product_title=The Importance of Being Earnest, Covent Garden
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Full cast of The Importance of Being Earnest [Photo © ROH / Stephen Cummiskey]