Composer: Gerald Barry
Conductor: Ilan Volkov
Director: Ramin Gray
Paul Curievici: John Worthing
Benedict Nelson: Algernon Moncrieff
Alan Ewing: Lady Bracknell
Stephanie Marshall: Gwendolen Fairfax
Claudia Boyle: Cecily Cardew
Hilary Summers: Miss Prism
Simon Wilding: Lane/Merriman
Kevin West: Rev. Canon Chasuble, D.D.
Oscar Wilde’s perennially popular The Importance of Being Earnest is as flawlessly sparkling a comedy as they come, therefore I was very much looking forward to checking out the modern dress, semi-staged opera production of it by Irish composer Gerald Barry and the Royal Opera of London. I highly doubted that the original play could be much improved upon, but on second thought, the idea of giving it a musical spin sounded very intriguing and totally worth exploring.
So last Saturday evening I walked down Broadway to the Time Warner Center's not so full but still wonderful Rose Theater, where, two days after its US premiere, The Importance of Being Earnest (The Opera) was being presented with most of the original London cast for the third and last time as part of the NY Phil Biennial.
In his "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People", Oscar Wilde used the concept of double identity and double life to expose Victorian ways with no mercy, but plenty of mordant wit and laugh-out-loud shenanigans. So my hope was that the opera would keep the irresistible spirit of the play and spice it up with an equally appealing musical accompaniment, et voilà! The exciting mission would be accomplished. But it did not happen.
Having a man impersonate the formidable high-society matron that is Lady Bracknell is not exactly a novelty since it has successfully been done in the play. But in this case, the fact that bass Alan Ewing was dressed as a businessman and did not project anything remotely feminine automatically killed the potentially entertaining gender-bending touch and simply looked odd. His singing, on the other hand, was self-possessed and engaging, even when he launched into an amusingly dreadful version of Schiller’s "Freude Schöner Götterfunken", excruciatingly poking fun at the obsession of Victorian upper class with German culture, and making me even more grateful than usual for Beethoven's glorious "Ode to Joy".
The two endlessly scheming buddies, Jack and Algernon, were equally well represented by clear-voiced tenor Paul Curievici and borderline scruffy baritone Benedict Nelson respectively. They both managed to keep up with the comedic and musical pace without seemingly breaking a sweat, which certainly was no mean feat.
Their two attractive love interests fared just as heroically. Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Marshall was Gwendolen Fairfax, the iron-willed young woman who will stop at nothing to marry someone named Ernest, and soprano Claudia Boyle was Cecily Cardew, an irresistible bimbo whose impeccably – if gratingly – stratospheric singing was a tour de force in itself.
The rest of the cast, including contralto Hilary Summers as a truly wonderful, not so uptight Miss Prism, easily blended in to create a wildly rambunctious, completely homogeneous ensemble.
Their excellent singing was all the more remarkable given how dauntingly difficult, mercilessly dissonant and aggravatingly erratic the score was, not to mention how generally unrewarding the overall experience ended up being. There were a few more or less delightfully inventive moments to be sure, such as two French horns evoking an army of buzzing bumblebees driving Cecily and Miss Prism crazy in the countryside, dinner plates being rhythmically smashed on the off-beats during a confrontation between Cecily and Gwendolen via megaphones (?!), the musicians adding chanting or stomping to their already unnerving instrumental duties. But a lot of it seemed designed just for wackiness' sake and all the non-stop agitation ended up feeling gratuitous and tiresome.
Kudos, however, are in order for the reduced brass-and-wind-centric orchestra consisting of New York Philharmonic members who bravely tried to make sense of it all, and for conductor Ilan Volkov who unflappably kept his head cool and his baton precise, even after being unceremoniously bumped off his stand at the very beginning of the performance, right before a garish take on "Auld Lang Syne" ominously warned us of louder and zanier things to come. And they kept coming for almost two hours.
To be fair, there were some random instances where the refined humor of the original play winningly made it through the widespread mayhem and some directional choices were somewhat inspired, such as the first row in the orchestra being mostly occupied by the singers when they were not onstage, but really, there are only so many cucumber sandwiches one can watch fly all over the place in the course of a single performance.
From what I overheard during intermission, audience members had widely different opinions about the experience. The comments from the group of slightly puzzled adults in front of me ranged from "unusual" to "unbearable", and concluded that their next opera outing should be Madama Butterfly. A few minutes later a revved up kid passing in front of me turned to his buddy and breathlessly confessed "I don't understand it but I like it". Sometimes ignorance is bliss indeed.