The Importance of Being Earnest

Christopher Cull, Stephen Richardson and Peter Tantsits in Wide Open Opera and NI Opera's The Importance of Being Earnest by Gerald Barry

Christopher Cull, Stephen Richardson and Peter Tantsits in Wide Open Opera and NI Opera's The Importance of Being Earnest by Gerald Barry

Hilary Summers and Aoife Miskelly as Ms Prism and Cecily Cardew in Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest

Hilary Summers and Aoife Miskelly as Ms Prism and Cecily Cardew in Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest

Without a shadow of a doubt, in about twenty years’ time, opera audiences all over the world will be saying things like “You can’t beat a good Earnest to kick start the season". For this is what we have here – a recently composed contemporary opera which, in a few short months, has caught the imagination, attention and acclaim of audiences in Nancy, London and now Dublin.  As each of the productions were markedly different in terms of staging and design, this success has got to be down to the work itself.  Gerald Barry takes Wilde’s play and turns it inside out, by applying his inestimable heft as a composer and dramatist and allowing the music to channel the unspoken sadness, rage, bitterness and cant under the patina of witty repartee. 
That is not to discount the impact of this co-production by NI Opera and Wide Open Opera, directed and designed by Antony McDonald, whose staging and imagery is full of invention and expressionistic glee and completely at one with the intentions of the composer.  Perhaps the best example of this is the ‘polite’ clipped exchanges between Cecily and Gwendolen in Act Two literally via megaphones – punctuated by the smashing of about forty plates in quick succession by the deadpan manservant played with aplomb by Christopher Cull.  This is not a bit of stage business grafted on by a very imaginative director, this is part of the score – made all the more delicious for this production as the accompanying orchestra are called Crash Ensemble. 
But the composer also knows when to leave some lines to be simply spoken. Lady Bracknell, sung by Stephen Richardson in a sonorous bass, wearing tails and sprouting a bustle at the back, is left to declaim rather than sing the famous ‘handbag’ line, for example – with the internal revulsion at this impropriety underlined by him proceeding to ‘throw up’ into a large pink bucket with accompanying stops and starts from the orchestra.  When the same Bracknell furiously stirs her tea, swirling semiquavers from the brass big up whatever trivial agitation is occupying her at that moment. Jessica Walker’s Gwendolen, usually fey and submissive in Wilde’s play, is all intrigue and lasciviousness here, with a voice to match, and when she and her beloved John Worthing have a bit of a romp in full view of an oblivious Lady B – we know that we are peering into the fevered imaginations of these two lovebirds. 
There are many other delights along these lines: Cecily’s German Grammar Book gets a Leitmotiv all of its own of tremolos from the orchestra, but possibly most hilarious marriage of music and staging was at the climax of the piece when John Worthing goes offstage to his bedroom to root for the all-important handbag. To the accompaniment of some furious ‘searching’ music, a barrage of maybe fifty multicoloured cuddly toys rain down on the cast from stage right. Then, to big portentous brass chords of Wagnerian proportions, Mr Worthing emerges bearing a small orange cookie monster, looks at it, indicates “no that’s not it”, and exits stage left to start all over again, throwing out yet another department store’s worth of small furry creatures.
The often galloping and complex score was brilliantly reined in and realised by conductor Pierre-André Valade. The singers made the composer’s incredibly difficult and demanding melodic lines, with rapid-fire atonal leaps all over the place, sound as seemingly effortless as Wilde’s aphorisms. 
Peter Tantsits and Joshua Bloom as John Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff respectively both produced a huge range of sounds well beyond their usual tenor and baritone range, with their fleeting  falsetto passages nicely conveying the effete nature of these two toffs. Aoife Miskelly’s Cecily Cardew produced some incredibly high soprano lines, particularly in Act Three, of a boy chorister quality and dovetailed with Hilary Summers’ Miss Prism who seemed like someone in drag in her opening numbers, so low was her register, while Olwen Fouéré’s non-singing Dr. Chausable got the right sense of faux solemnity of the country vicar. 
In addition to just playing their instruments, the Crash Ensemble also sang, stamped their feet and whistled some tunes all from the pit and for that reason it was all the more surprising that it was felt necessary to pre-record the brief Chorale sections when the orchestra filled in so well. The brief amplified sound jarred with the live music. DM Wood’s lighting helped to heighten the tension between the aristos – particularly in Act one, with razor sharp cues to illuminate the shifting relationships.  
An absolute hoot. 
John White is a choral conductor, music teacher and theatre director.
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The Importance of Being Earnest by Gerald Barry

26 October- 9 November

Produced by Wide Open Opera and NI Opera
In Derry, Belfast, Cork and Dublin

Conducted by Pierre-André Valade

Directed and Designed by Antony McDonald

Lighting Design: DM Wood  

With: Aoife Miskelly, Jessica Walker, Peter Tantsits, Joshua Bloom, Stephen Richardson, Hilary Summers, Christopher Cull, Olwen Fouéré.

Crash Ensemble:



The Millennium Forum, Derry/Londonderry

The Grand Opera House, Belfast

Cork Opera House, Cork

The Gaiety Theatre, Dublin