When Gerard Barry chose to dress up one of Oscar Wilde’s most famous plays as an avant-garde opera, did he know what kind of double-edged sword such a production would be?
Those who like their operas with arias and melodies may want to stick to Covent Garden and steer clear of the Barbican’s latest high-art outing. True, this has already played to audiences in the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio but it is a far cry from the vaunted venue’s usual fare.
Every part of Wilde’s masterpiece has been ripped apart and artfully reconstructed in small and large ways. The libretto largely consists of the quips which Earnest is not short on but, as this is an opera, the more drawn out delivery of the sung prose (at least in comparison to the theatrical equivalent) robs the bon mots of much of their zing; the projected lyrics help clarify what is being said in some of the more confused segments but reveal the exquisite punchlines before they are uttered.
The plot has been reduced to the bare bones leaving the main protagonists Benedict Nelson (as Algernon Moncrieff) and Paul Curievici (as John Worthing) to do much of the dramatic heavy lifting through their refined acting and singing. Both inhabit their very different roles and are very watchable from soup to nuts.
One of Barry’s many spanners in Wilde’s work is in the casting of bass Alan Ewing as Lady Bracknell. The poor chap doesn’t look entirely comfortable storming around in his pinstripe suit and red tie like a politician on the stump and there’s a decided lack of levity (even tongue in cheek) when compared to the lighter touch applied by Stephanie Marshall and Claudia Boyle to Gwendolen and Cecily respectively.
The staging is a highly visual indicator of Barry’s unconventional streak. The orchestra are plonked on the right of the stage in plain sight with the actors moving beside and around the instrumentalists. Actors clamber onto the stage from just in front of the audience and occasionally take up seats in the front row. A multitude of flower pots are laid out by one character before being kicked over by another. Titles are shown not above or to the side but at the back. Flickering lights and loud gun shots are used to disorientate – or, perhaps, awaken – the audience.
Barry’s music hits as many highs as it does lows. Plates are gloriously smashed tavern-style to punctuate a couple of scenes and the orchestra is asked to join in the singing at one point, adding to the general discombobulation. On the flip side, much of the music is ear-piercingly shrieking and simply unlistenable especially when played at volume; worse, some of the singing is buried beneath the cacophony.
“In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.” In twelve succinct words, Wilde satirically bores to the chief failing here. Ramin Gray’s direction tries to keep this Earnest as witty and heavenly as Wilde intended but it is ultimately dragged down by Barry’s surrealist vision. What could have been a well-placed poke in the eye to the staid opera establishment is more like a vaudeville pratfall without the attendant humour.
The Importance Of Being Earnest continues at The Barbican until 3 April. For more information, please see the venue’s website.