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Monday 17 June 2013

The Importance of Being Ernest at ROH

Linbury Theatre

This is being billed as the first "staged" production of Gerald Barry's opera in the UK, but the orchestra is visible on stage, there is no set beyond the props and no off stage area so surely semi-staged is the more apt term if we are using conventional terminology. It's not as if the libretto strongly suggests that there is an orchestra in the background at all times.

Gerald Barry has described his extensive excisions of the original text (it's cut down to a third of the play's length) as an X-ray of the original, noting how strong the play is to have survived such treatment. It hardly needs to be said that Wilde is the patron saint of camp, its highest and most delicious exponent. The music is deliberately unbearable and totally at odds with the libretto - nothing less camp or intentionally charmless than Barry's music could be imagined in its unrelenting brashness, furious yet sparely rendered violence, and motoric rhythmic insistence. The music is itself like an X-ray in its stripping away of anything that might be suggestive of softness, sensuality or beauty of surface. When the body being X-rayed is something like the child of Stravinsky/Xenakis meets a brassband, you're left with a very hard aural picture. This is odd since a large part of Wilde's campness is derived from his status as the most ardent aesthete in the popular imagination; indeed he has become for us the embodiment of that sensibility. (It's also why Strauss' Salome [which also uses a play by Wilde] is such a good fit of librettist and composer.) In the context of Barry's music, Wilde's words emerge not as camp satire, but as manic, almost demented dadaism. The shift in focus is total, and the humour that arises is based on the surreal rather than on wry observation of social convention.

Ramin Gray has updated the piece to the present day, and reinforces many aspects of Barry's setting of the text by mixing naturalistic acting with obvious "set pieces" (quartets, duets etc. delivered facing forwards). Lighting is the biggest indicator of changes of mood and scene, though isn't evocative of time or place, but instead simply indicates a change in circumstances. Maybe the funniest and most shocking sequence is the portion where 40 or so plates are smashed rhythmically in the course of a minute between Gwendolen's angrily articulated syllables, but the rest feels like a dislocated, alienated run through of Wilde's play. I really wonder what it would look like with ultra fussy late 19th century sets and costumes - maybe the score/libretto would be funnier and more revealing that way?

The cast is mostly quite good. One of the best aspects of the score is that Barry has chosen to make Lady Bracknell a bass voice part, making it one of the very few "skirt" roles in opera (that is a man playing a woman). In this production, Lady Bracknell is just a suited man who is incongruously called "mama", "lady", "she" etc. throughout, to absurd effect. On the one hand the lack of drag matches the lack of campness in the staging (and music), but on the other seems like a sadly missed opportunity. As Lady Bracknell, Alan Ewing has a pleasantly rich voice, though his frequent excursions into falsetto were really choked. Ida Falk Winland is impressive in the high coloratura role of Cecily (and it would be good to hear her in something more appetising). The rest are more than serviceable, but it's difficult to really comment much on their voices or interpretation. The Britten Sinfonia play this rhythmically difficult music with confidence, though are underutilised in the sense that the music doesn't call for anything other than accuracy. Conductor Tim Murray has the thankless job of simply beating time.

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