Sunday 23 June 2013

The importance of composing comedy

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.


David Damant said...

I will be interested to catch up on this opera (is it the one beginning "Don't touch the cucumber sandwiches" Or was that different ? )The play has an interesting history. At the premiere George Bernard Shaw found that it did not touch him...he supposed that it was a early work brought forward at a late date, and lacking the human elements in the (supposed) later plays. Nowadays we find the absence of Victorian sentimentality ( as in A Woman of No Importance, or The Ideal Husband)a great advantage. Yet even as late as the Second World War the King's Private Secretary found the play too artificial etc Rather odd. Perhaps the opera advances one side of this argument or the other.

The early cuts to the play made by Wilde entail that the usual performances exclude one or two rather good things. Cecily explains that John Worthing lunched on pate de foie gras sandwiches and the 1889 champagne. "The 1889? Are you sure?" asks Algernon " O yes " replies Cecily "It is on medical advice. Even the cheaper clarets are forbidden to him" One knows how he feels.

David said...

The opera starts, I think I'm right in saying, with the same line as the play, Algernon's 'Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?', but diverges quickly because he's been 'playing' something through his headphones.

I wonder if you would warm to it or harrumph. It's not exactly elegant-epigram heaven (which I can't bear). Wilde is, I reckon, all the better for it.

jondrytay said...

Stephanie Marshall, shirley? Stephanie Blythe is an altogether different kettle of fish.

David said...

I've got Stephanie Blythe on the brain now because of that perfectly plumptious Cardiff winner. But I didn't when I wrote this, so no excuseexcept for brainslip. To correct it now.

But really, Jon, you don't pop up for a year or more and then no kind word? I see you have REAMS at long last on Cardiff SotW which will require careful attention. The diplo-mate thinks your writing is brilliant, by the way, as do I, and wishes there were more, especially of your own brand of comic saeva indignatio over gay marriage issues.

jondrytay said...

Oh, how remiss of me! It hadn't crossed my mind that it would have been that long since I'd commented You must always take my silence as tacit approval. Like the old German joke about the child who doesn't speak then asks for more mustard when he's ten- know that one?

Thank you so much for the kind words about the blog. It's been in abeyance while I've been so busy playactin' but I couldn't let Cardiff pass.

David said...

I do, Jon, I do. Is that it with regard to the Teutonic ha-ha? Or is it the way they tell 'em? I like the one J reports - actually it's true - about the major who surprises a waiter with an non-U request. 'Mustard to mutton, sir?' asks the waiter. Replies the major: 'mustard to shit if I ask for it!'

jondrytay said...

Ha, yes, that sounds par for the course. It was made quite clear to us on Köpenick earlier this year that German humour and British audiences don't mix.

Anonymous said...

David, I, too, have been enjoying your blog quietly, already having sufficient mustard! Today I must voice delight in your review of what sounds a lot of fun on stage. I was glad you mentioned a Gilbert and Sullivan moment, because they sprang to mind immediately upon just reading your post's title, and their style does guarantee good fun.

My earliest introduction to "Importance" came almost before I was old enough to read the play, through the 1952 film version, starring - to my child perception - Margaret Rutherford. Seeing it again years later, I was surprised by the famous cast, whom I had barely noticed before, eclipsed as they were by Dame Margaret. Surely GBS would have been more touched, had he seen her Miss Prism.

I have a fondness for Wilde's plays in their natural habitat - never too much about cucumber sandwiches and cheap claret for me. How do you feel about the update? -- Elizabeth

David said...

Jon - does that mean '[working] on Koepenick', ie on the National production with Anthony Sher? I was curious to see it, and even more so when the Berlin suburb we were staying in last week turned out to be right next door to said town.

I don't know whether the Austrians are better at humour than the Germans, but Thomas Bernhard, say, is a lot funnier than Thomas Mann in so called comic mode (Confessions of Felix Krull, ouch). Or Bavarians, because Strauss's sophisticated humour, especially when conjoined with Hofmannsthal in the Ariadne Prologue, can be very funny indeed.

Elizabeth - I loved the update because it didn't draw attention to itself. Victorian costumes would have just pointed up the disjunction between text and music. I'm not sure an update would work in a straight play (though I saw a very un-straight one in Vienna, all-male with old director Otto Schenk as a Lady Bracknell rather the worse for drink - in truth, I think).

G&S still works superbly if not overworked for laughs (I'm still recovering from a drearily busy Scottish Opera Pirates of Penzance). The line of great British comic operas/operettas after that is not so strong. I'd include Britten's Albert Herring because I think Eric Crozier's libretto is one of BB's finest (not difficult). Otherwise, what else is there? Falstaff and Gianni Schicchi. Others may think of more.

Oh, Margaret Rutherford - not at all a 'female of repellent aspect', was she, the dear. I always remember Joan Greenwood of the seductively husky voice in the film, too. Once heard her recite Liszt melodramas in a Savile Club tribute to Roy Plomley. Elizabeth Welch and Frankie Howerd also performed. What an evening that was.

Susan Scheid said...

You've had quite the double-header, what between Britten's Gloriana and Barry's Earnest. (I wasn't able to spot a live screening of Gloriana here, but, as I've had a Very Important Visitor all this week I wouldn't have been able to see it in any event.) Your TAD piece, however, even without experiencing the opera first-hand, had me on the edge of my seat, and the production, based on the stills, looks to be a stunner.

On the subject of Earnest, I remember you mentioning Barry as, along with MacMillan and Adams, a current composer whose work you particularly liked, and from your fabulous blow-by-blow of Earnest, I can certainly see why. Phenomenal to think, for one, that it contains "the wildest operatic percussion tour de force since the mould-breaking chase in Shostakovich's The Nose."

I hope I'll have a chance to see both of these productions at some point, at least on DVD. Is there any inkling a DVD might be in the offing for either or both?

PS: enjoyed the banter in the comments, too, and can only add, having looked up the "perfectly plumptious Cardiff winner," that I see she hales from Rome . . . Georgia, that is. Now, I know others can boast having been to Rome, Italy, but how many, I ask you, can claim a visit to Rome, Georgia? I am one who can. All I remember was a LOT of kudzu, but then that doesn't really differentiate it much from whole swaths of the SE U.S. (I spent a lot of quality time in Georgia in a previous life workin' for the union.)

David said...

Thanks, Sue - Earnest, as I wrote, is coming out on CD but Gloriana will be relased by Opus Arte on DVD, not quite sure when. I think there's a Radio 3 broadcast due soon. I hope to go again. Richard Jones was spellbinding talking to the students (+ a few friends) in my class yesterday - we got the whole context of how he works on 'back stories' and how A S Byatt's The Virgin in the Garden got him out of an impasse in thinking of what to do with the piece. Plus some off-the-record insights about directors and conductors (of course he likes the ones who are dramatically literate - Pappano, Jurowski, Mark Elder and, in this instance, Paul Daniel whose injunction to keep the 'centre' - ie Elizabeth and Essex - in focus gave him the kick he said he needed).

Earnest is surely a piece for Contemporaneous, if they can get singers up to their standard. And it really is an ensemble piece, so Bard students would have a field day with it.

Another Americanism I don't know - what's 'kudzu'?

jondrytay said...

David: yes, I've been at the National since December- first Köpenick and now Othello. Köpenick was a load of fun, although it met with more or less the definitive mixed response.

David said...

So, Jon, you're a relatively new boy in what Richard Jones yesterday described as 'the grammar school' (as opposed to the Young Vic, where he now works annually, which he calls 'the art school').

Ah well, at least the NT ventured to do a European classic again rather than more bleedin' Bennett. Wish I'd seen CoK (guess it's finished now).

Howard Lane said...

David, you beat me to it - I thought I'd ask what kudzu is rather than look it up on a search engine (not Google - but let's not go there...).

Looking forward to Gloriana if it's on i-player as well as The Nose coming to an Opera Live broadcast near us later in the year (especially if there's a percussion "tour de force"). But I am in grave danger of missing radio repeats - an old chum Nick Perry had a play on Radio 4 last week and I still haven't caught it. I missed your Music Matters too.

But I have been quietly keeping up and greatly enjoying the mustard.

David said...

Good to hear from you, Howard, and sorry Claire couldn't make the RJ 'special' yesterday. You probably know this but the Radio 3 broadcast is on the 29th and will be up for a week on iPlayer.

The Nose interlude is extraordinary, but not quite as much as what follows it - the hawking and spitting (not to mention brass farts) for Kovalyov's morning ablutions.

Susan Scheid said...

Ah, missed that about the CD (I see it now). Fascinating to know a bit of what Jones had to say--how interesting that Byatt's The Virgin in the Garden got him out of an impasse. Of course, I'm curious now to pick up her book, not one I've read. BBC3 is, I think, going to broadcast Gloriana, though I am really pleased to know there will be a DVD.

Re The Nose, I see the Met is going to offer it this October on HD. This is the first opera I ever raced back to see twice in close succession. Way back in the Raining Acorns blog days, I wrote about it, if of interest: here

Here's wikipedia on Kudzu (yes, even though I know the word and plant, I succumbed to a search to answer yours and Howard Lane's question): “Kudzu (Pueraria lobata) is a serious invasive plant in the United States. It has been spreading in the southern U.S. at the rate of 150,000 acres (61,000 ha) annually, ‘easily outpacing the use of herbicide spraying and mowing, as well increasing the costs of these controls by $6 million annually.’ ‘[Its introduction has produced devastating environmental consequences. This has earned it the nickname, 'The vine that ate the South.'"

PS: Oh, what has the world come to if I’m now “better qualified to write about the development in Adams’s style between two final movements.” Hmmm. Might be fun to try . . . but first, now that I’ve finished (this phase of) my Prokofiev binge, I’m off to read The Last Leopard . . .

David said...

Sue, like Howard I resisted Googling 'kudzu' to get your inimitable take on it. Sounds like our Japanese knotweed, which has been much in the news at the moment as it puts Hampstead and Highgate property valuations at risk (poor souls). Actor Tom Conti has been photographed looking desperate against the fast-growing monster and says it's pure triffid invasion.

I'm going to read The Virgin in the Garden too, even though I gave up on Byatt's latest, The Children's Book, which I think is just dreadful. Surely the Gloriana transmission will be on BBC4: BBC3 is mostly for braindead youth.

I well remember your take on The Nose, though will look again. We had an obscure Mariinsky high-tech production visit, but it wasn't a patch on the historic Moscow Chamber Theatre production which I saw, and loved, in Brighton.

You're much better qualified than me because you've actually taken the trouble to listen to the finales side by side.

Piala said...

Thanks very much for this review. Everyone else had been writing how great that the opera had brought out the violence of Wilde's play - while putting down Wilde - so that just gave me the mistrustful shudders and I didn't want to book or go. Now that you've written something with more qualification, discussing Barry's opera on its own merits, I'll definitely want to listen to the CD when it comes out and hopefully get to look at the score sometime too.

If you hadn't written the piece though, I might never have found out. I can't remember reading, for example, that Lady Bracknell would be played by a man in a man's costume (which makes it interesting and thoughtful) - when other reviewers gave the impression it would be in drag (more a taking away if so, for me).
Anyway, I've missed the opportunity to see it now, but lesson learnt.

David said...

I understand what you mean about preliminary reservations, Piala. Although I did get a lot out of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, I was a bit worried that the play would just be sent up in a silly way, but the experience was much richer than that.

One of my students said last night, shuddering, 'what, Lady Bracknell in a suit? Why? And being called 'mama' too'. I replied that since the music was hardly 'straight', why should the disjunction be so hard to take. And it was just presented and accepted, not overdone (like that awful Pirates of Penzance I was talking about).

Sue - one bit of news for you: Peter WILL be singing Ochs when you go, at least as of now. He didn't go into the tergiversation, so nor shall/can I. Still, you'll get the best Ochs around, now that the older generation is fading out. Who else is there, I wonder? And he can go on singing it for 20 years with luck...

Susan Scheid said...

Oops, meant BBC3radio will have it in opera on 3, though of course that's only the audio. Hooray about Peter Rose!

David Damant said...

Wilde said that there were two ways of disliking his plays. One was to dislike them and the other was to prefer The Importance of Being Earnest.

David said...

He should be so lucky that the others are still performed at all. They've certainly brought out the worst in filmmakers: that Ideal Husband starring Rupert Everett and a real stinker of a performance from Minnie Driver was ludicrously bad.