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The Importance of Being Earnest

Gerald Barry's idiosyncratic take on Oscar Wilde's comedy of manners gets its UK premiere at the Royal Opera House, where it runs to 22 June

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Ida Falk Winland as Cecily
© ROH / Stephen Cummiskey
"I like Wagner's music better than anybody's. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without other people hearing what one says." – Oscar Wilde.

Wilde would then have been delighted by Gerald Barry's new adaptation of his most celebrated work for stage – The Importance of Being Earnest – into opera. But I daresay he'd also have been either enthralled or shushed into silence watching its première production at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio Theatre.

Barry's music is modern and angular: all quirky time signatures and cycling through A Lot Of Notes; frequently Very Fast. However, unlike a lot of modernist music, it doesn't feel like an aggressive attack on the listener, or on music (no bad thing in itself, but this isn't that thing). Here, there is also almost a jaunty playfulness about the score (all credit to conductor Tim Murray), which seems to be skipping from musical quotation to musical quotation even as Wilde's play hops from epigram to epigram.

Indeed, rather than feeling (as I'm afraid I rather did with the Benjamin/Crimp collaboration Written on Skin) that the music stops the script from being recognisable as witty or funny, here I would venture that the music takes a defibrillator to Wilde's fusty old script. "Not even for ready money" is cut. Lady Bracknell's exclamation: "A Handbag!" – now dictated by music – stops being the pinnacle of show-boating it is in theatre. And new wit is added simply by virtue of having choppy rhythms dictate tart new line breaks. Barry has also added a few new jokes of his own, including Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism both performing new settings of Schiller's Ode an die Freude (made famous as the lyrics to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony).

In response to the music (and to, I presume, to a dramaturgy which belongs to Barry), Ramin Gray's production has sensibly opted to abandon the hideous, chocolate-boxy historical costumes still beloved of Britain's regional repertory theatres and has instead created a very respectable staging of the German school. Costumes are modern-dress and self-consciously ugly kitsch. When Gwendoline (Stephanie Marshall) and Cecily (the astonishing Ida Falk Winland) first meet, they do so through megaphones.

The "set" is a rake of wide black steps like those used in German stagings of Greek tragedies, on which the orchestra is also positioned, with much of the atmosphere provided – Robert Wilson-like – by Franz Peter David's colourful lighting design. Elsewhere in the production we notice that Lady Bracknell is being sung like the Wagnerian dragon she is by bass singer Alan Ewing (who has indeed played Fafner in Der Ring des Nibelungen), while dressed perfectly normally as a modern City businessman.

This is a first-rate new opera, it is very funny, the top price seats are only £36 and it has been given a staging of which anyone ever planning to direct Wilde in a theatre ever again would be well advised to take note. It leaves a silly smile on your face and makes this old favourite not only watchable but funny again.

- Andrew Haydon