Great comic opera, that is. Let's say it with carnation flinging and shout it through megaphones: the filleted-Wilde, stylised anarchy that is Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest has to be the best work of musical theatre since MacMillan's The Sacrifice. At times it's tear-jerkingly funny, always contradictory and unexpected (in the first of Stephen Cummiskey's production photos above, that's Miss Prism on the left as played by Hilary Summers, not Lady Bracknell, who's the pin striped gentleman in the ensemble).
Lucky those who were present at the already historic Barbican concert performance last year. As was my hard-to-please Arts Desk colleague Igor, who wrote a dazzling review of it but was less impressed by the first UK staging in the Royal Opera's Linbury Theatre. I couldn't fault it as a production. We got into the final performance yesterday evening only at the last minute, when nice Emily Benson in Kasper Holten's office found a couple of tickets to buy (the show was sold out the minute booking opened). And was it worth it.
As the best chamber opera, surely, since Britten's The Turn of the Screw, Barry's Earnest could not be better placed than it was in the Linbury, on Ben Clark's stage of shallow steps with the superlative Britten Sinfonia's ensemble of 22 players, flawless under Tim Murray, taking up half the space and the singing-actors, along with minimal props including a plate-rack and vases of white flowers, the rest.
Since the music goes against the grain of Wilde's crisp if subversive Victoriana, scattergunning a perceived subtext of rage, director Ramin Gray underlined the absurdity with an everyday contemporary look going increasingly awry - but not, dramatically speaking, out of control or overegged. Lady Bracknell was taken for granted as a megalomaniac businessman, the lovers ordinary young people - until they opened their mouths. Franz Peter David's quick-change lighting was a stripped-down version of the wonders Mimi Jordan Sherin is simultaneously achieving in the main house's Gloriana - what a parallel universe - and Christina Cunningham's costume colour scheme clashed deliciously.
Barry's style is now unmistakeable: the text is pattered out, sometimes robotically, on regular beats while the wind- and brass-dominated ensemble burps and shrieks between the words. The fury beneath what's said or sung is blatantly exposed. I first realised Barry's genius, having been totally baffled by his first opera The Intelligence Park at the Almeida, when English National Opera got Richard Jones to stage The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant: now there was a Prelude to grab you by the scruff of the neck.
The abrasive style could quickly become wearing and/or enervating. But Barry is a master of scenic contrast. Lady Bracknell and Jack repeat some of their lines to a G&S jig-duet; there are two hilarious non-Beethovenesque settings of Schiller's Ode to Joy for bass and contralto in first and second acts respectively (if the Ninth Symphony has been re-ordered therein, I couldn't make it out); and many of the orchestral interludes grab the imagination. Horns buzz like monster-mutant flies or bees in between the Act Two pastoral and there's a refrain punctuating one-note declamation which for some odd reason reminded me of Strauss in Ariadne mode, very memorable. The four-note refrain in the introduction to Act Three is unforgettable, and the players' vocal participations a delight.
Hysterical highlight, though, is a Cecily v Gwendolen bitchfest as funny as in the Australian two-hander Wilde production I saw in the Barbican's Pit, where drag Gwendolen was a bunny-boiler from the start. Timed declamation through megaphones is punctuated by the ear-splitting smash-up of plates by percussionist Helen Edordu (above with Stephanie Marshall's Gwendolen), complemented by mallet, welly boots, buzzer, pistol shots and wind-machine: the wildest operatic percussion tour de force since the mould-breaking chase in Shostakovich's The Nose.
The vocal writing is of an insanely wide compass. The two singers who coped with it most flawlessly were the dazzling high/coloratura soprano Ida Falk Winland (above) and tenor Paul Curievici, more impactful lovers than the perfectly good Marshall and the OK Benedict Nelson (below, Curievici with Marshall).
Alan Ewing's Bracknell and Hilary Summers's Prism, consummate actors both, had a bit more trouble with the upper reaches; but then Barry probably wants the sense of strain. Anyhow, the musically irreproachable ensemble work's the thing. Though, sadly, the Linbury performances are now over, this opera will run and run. Must get hold of the full score and can't wait for the NMC release of the Barbican concert recording, scheduled for release later this year. On a more pressing note, finally, don't forget the livescreening to cinemas around the world of the Royal Opera Gloriana tomorrow. There's a link which should eventually get you to venues at the foot of my Arts Desk review.
28/8 Trying to track down the plate-smashing duet for Sue Scheid, I found various short clips in amongst interesting talking heads, but perhaps the most intriguing snippet is here with Gerald Barry demonstrating alongside Thomas Adès. Stephen Fry seems fixated on the play in this five-minute precis of a 28 minute conversation and hasn't seen the opera, but he does come up with the treasurable image of Barry's applying a machete to a soufflé.