The Importance of Being Earnest (Barbican Theatre)
The Royal Opera revives Gerald Barry's madcap opera to dazzling effect
Oscar Wilde would have relished the irony. His 1895 play subverted a genteel Victorian world of lion aunts and cucumber sandwiches, and now Gerald Barry's freewheeling entertainment does the same to him. So much for po-faced modern opera: the composer retains scraps of the original text (but all the plot) and sets it to a score of joyous musical elasticity. Small wonder The Importance of Being Earnest has embedded itself in the repertoire so rapidly, with overseas productions to its name as well as this 2013 Royal Opera staging.
The photo above defines the experience. In a riot of modern dress Lady Bracknell's a man in a pinstripe suit, the orchestra plays onstage and everyone does silly things. But in spite of all that it's a smart piece of work, irresistibly inventive both musically and, in director Ramin Gray's concept, visually.
When Barry shakes the tree of convention all kinds of strange fruit drop out. He sets words to music by brea [...] King them intheoddestpla. Ces so that we hear their rhythms afresh and attend to their cleverness. The orchestra is required to play, recite, smash plates and generally break the rules, a freedom that most (but not quite all) members of the excellent Britten Sinfonia seem to enjoy. The fun is fractured but never fractious, the chaos meticulously organised. As mayhem increases and the Barbican stage is progressively trashed, the weirdest thing in the opera is an entr'acte that offers an oasis of mere music. The energetic Tim Murray conducts it with the same conviction that he brings to the evening's madness.
Several cast members reprise their roles from 2013 but everyone is a delight. Paul Curievici's comic timing as Jack Worthing is as acute as his singing, while Benedict Nelson's Algernon is endearing - a growling bear in loud clothes. Claudia Boyle makes light of Cecily's ultra-soprano writing - she skates across her stratospheric role in the shortest of hot pants - and Stephanie Marshall as Gwendolen is just the wrong side of demure with or without her Sitwell-esque megaphone.
Singers in briefer appearances are no less entertaining, especially the underused Simon Wilding in the two factotum roles. And as Miss Prism the wonderful contralto Hilary Summers has to growl more than she shimmers; she does both superbly, unsurprisingly, decked out in dowdy purple as she devours the three-volume edition of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Then there's Alan Ewing as Lady Bracknell. The urbane bass plays him/her absolutely straight, as a result of which his cod-Irish dance with Curievici is the highlight of an evening that's awash with treasurable moments.
Comic operas that deliver real laughs are rare; modern operas that do so are like hens' teeth. The comparison that sprang to my own mind when watching The Importance was Eight Songs for a Mad King by the late Peter Maxwell Davies – a work that's hardly funny at all, but one that smashed through the book of expectation and created a lopsided stage world all its own. This show does the same.
The Importance of Being Earnest runs at the Barbican Theatre until 3 April. It is live-streamed on 2 April on the Royal Opera House You Tube channel.
The production will tour to the Rose Theater, New York, from 2 to 4 June 2016.