Barry Takes Musico-Dramatic Sledgehammer to Wilde’s Importance with Hilarious Results
Gerald Barry, The Importance of Being Earnest: Soloists, Britten Sinfonia, Tim Murray (conductor). Barbican Theatre, 29.3.2016. (MB)
Barry, The Importance of Being Earnest
Lane/Merriman – Simon Wilding
Algernon Moncrieff – Benedict Nelson
John Worthing – Paul Curievici
Gwendolen Fairfax – Stephanie Marshall
Alan Ewing – Lady Bracknell
Miss Prism – Hilary Summers
Cecily Cardew – Claudia Boyle
The Revd Canon Chasuble, DD – Kevin West
Ramin Gray (director)
Ben Clark (associate set designs, ‘after an idea by Johannes Schütz’)
Christina Cunningham (costumes)
Franz Peter David (lighting)
Leon Baugh (movement)
Few comedies are less hilarious than amusing comedies, few audiences less dramatically aware than conventional opera audiences. The slightest thing, regardless of intention (which otherwise matters to our reactionary ‘protectors’ of the form more than life itself), occasions riotous guffaws: even, God help us, ‘Contessa perdono’. Is there anything less amusing, more worthy of silent, awestruck listening than that moment in which forgiveness, both human and divine, is sought? The Countess’s response, of course, but that has already been ruined by such cretinous behaviour. The crime is enough to have one reconsider a lifetime’s opposition to capital punishment. Rossini’s comedies: well, they tend to be less tedious than his ‘serious’ operas, but about as funny. As for the ‘joke’ of, say, the interminable second act of Pfitzner’s Palestrina, ‘German humour’ is not sufficient mitigation. For the most part, many seem to forget that comedies need not be uproariously funny; they need not be ‘comic’ and indeed rarely are.
Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest is, then, that rare thing, at the very least approaching unique: a genuinely funny, even hilarious, opera. It even approaches something at least as rare, perhaps rarer still: genuine musical surrealism. Oscar Wilde’s play needs no music; nor does Shakespeare. But Wilde can – more on account of a reverence for his wit that fails truly to relish it, to play with it – seem terribly dated; likewise his brand of æstheticism. I am not saying that they are, or are not dated; they are certainly done no favours by endless revival from callow, indeed dismayingly earnest, undergraduate stagings. Barry’s musico-dramatic sledgehammer not only liberates the witticisms – the play has become, like Shakespeare, too full of quotations – but liberates the wit, by doing something so completely, unthinkably monstrous to it that somehow it emerges stronger, both in its transformation and, at least in my case, how one might once again view the ‘original’. Kagel and indeed Ligeti come to mind intellectually, perhaps, and not only on account of the forty-eight dinner plates to be smashed. Yet it is difficult to think of this as anything but a thing-in-itself, as original, as it were, in the exaltation of its shameless, parodic derivations, as in its ‘originality’. Given the brevity of the compositional period, Barry’s method seems forged in the necessary white heat of inspiration (how æstheticist, even Erwartung-like!), driven and liberated by it.
One can take the first of the three short acts – hurrah, an opera that does not overstay its welcome! – as a Von heute auf morgen that raises more than an indulgent smile; or one can take it as a swipe at Schoenberg. One can take it as neither of those things. One can simply, or not so simply, enjoy it. Both tightly organised and anarchically free, one might even say that Webern lives again, with a twist: irrationality, rather than rationality, is both internalised and externalised. And if that sounds Romantic, in a sense it is. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and not just Schiller, is mysteriously parodied, many characters having a go – not just making it fun, but once again rendering it strange. It is not Furtwängler’s way, but it intrigued; it is certainly a great deal more interesting than pieties of Werktreue. (Having said that perhaps a part for that great menace of musical life, the metronome, with shades of Ken Russell’s Lisztomania, might put in an appearance in a subsequent production?) French Revolutionary culture, aestheticism, Nazism, gender politics – all these and so many more are grist to Barry’s mill. What on earth is Auld Lang Syne doing? Ives with a sense of humour and without the Emerson? Who knows what it means? Is that the point? Is not caring the point? We doubtless talk too readily about deconstructing meaning and so on, but for once that, and perhaps even its reconstruction, seem actually to take place here – and crucially, in performance. Although the opera is less overt about its meta-theatricality than some, or perhaps more because it is so genuinely funny, it does not come across didactically. But there is something both bleak and liberating here: if not quite Beckettian, not entirely un-Beckettian too. Wilde edges, or rather is pushed, closer to many of his greatest countrymen than ‘earnest’ light undergraduate comedy might ever conceive. As so often, fidelity lies in infidelity.
Performance and staging seem indissoluble from the work, although who knows? They might, and surely will, prove not to be so. Such is the nature of performing art. Ramin Gray’s production has transferred very well from the Linbury Theatre, where it was first seen in 2013, to the larger space of the Barbican Theatre. (The Linbury will re-open in 2018; in the meantime, Royal Opera ‘Linbury productions’ will be seen elsewhere.). Next stop will be the Hammersmith Lyric, for Mark Simpson’s eagerly-awaited first opera, Pleasure.) It seems to me to do something similar to, and with, the opera that the opera does to, and with, the play. Not having seen the score, I do not know how much is prescribed; I am told that, ironically, and doubtless dialectically, quite a deal has been. As musical figures repeat, a parody of themselves, of something else, or perhaps just for the hell of it, they might do on stage or they might not. A moment of tenderness might be undercut, or might not. Yet there is never, except in a sense I am tempted to think of as æstheticist, or perhaps neo-æstheticist (think of Ligeti’s anti-anti-opera, Le grand macabre), a sense of the merely arbitrary. Arbitrariness is far too important for that. Above all, though, and in case you have not already despatched me to Pseud’s Corner, it is funny.
What I have said about the work, about the staging, I shall – you guessed correctly – say also of the musical performances. The Britten Sinfonia were their usual superb selves ‘straight men’ (and women) crucial to the comedy. Whether playing Stravinskian motoric rhythms, seemingly to the power n, or shouting ‘Where is that baby?’ they were an integral part of and commentary upon the drama. Tim Murray’s conducting was at least as impressive as last time too. Score in the head rather than head in the score, he and his band seemed as liberated as Wilde. Benedict Nelson’s Algernon knew and projected the difference, whilst simultaneously rejecting it, between life and art. He and Paul Curievici as Jack offered indissoluble comic and musical timing – and a good line in dance too. The tenderness of certain of Jack’s moments – blink and you might miss them, or imagine them – was not the least of Curievici’s performing achievements. Stephanie Marshall’s alluring Gwendolen and Claudia Boyle’s stratospheric Cecily were excellent foils, but far more than that. Alan Ewing’s pinstriped tour de force Lady Bracknell lost nothing in repetition, not even, indeed particularly not, his post-Chaplin metamorphosis of Schiller into Hitler. Hilary Summers’s voice is ideal for the ‘depth’ of Miss Prism; this wonderful singer proved just as excellent in the ‘lighter’ comedy too. Work, staging, and performances alike came together in their tearing each other apart. Or, alternatively, I have never laughed so much at an opera.