Odyssey Opera has unearthed a gem with its production of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s 1962 chamber opera The Importance of Being Earnest, never published and staged only twice previously, in the 1970s. With the permission of the composer’s granddaughter, Anthony De Ritis was allowed to prepare performance materials for this production from the manuscript score now in the Library of Congress.

Jeni Houser (Cecily Cardew) and Stefan Barner (Algernon Moncrieff) © Kathy Wittman
Jeni Houser (Cecily Cardew) and Stefan Barner (Algernon Moncrieff)
© Kathy Wittman

How do you make an opera out of a play which W.H. Auden thought was already “pure verbal opera”? What would be the appropriate musical analog on an equal footing with its rapid volley of witticisms and wordplay? Castelnuovo-Tedesco answered those questions by paring accompaniment down to two pianos and percussion, composing at his colorful neoclassical best, and embroidering his score with an array of musical epigrams derived from over three dozen works, ranging through symphonies, opera, chamber music, Lieder and oratorio to popular music and Gilbert and Sullivan. Like verbal epigrams, these quotes are pithy, pointed, and often paradoxical. Sometimes the vocal line follows them; other times it goes its own way. They are not idle, “name that tune” citations, though they can easily back up in the ear begging to be recognized when they come in rapid succession. That potential for distraction aside, it is an inspired choice which honors both the spirit and the letter of  Wilde’s farce.

Cast of <i>The Importance of being Earnest</i> © Kathy Wittman
Cast of The Importance of being Earnest
© Kathy Wittman

So Lady Bracknell, whom Wilde writes rings a doorbell in Wagnerian fashion, enters to “The Ride of The Valkyries” then trails the overture to Der fliegende Holländer like a musical bustle for the rest of the opera. When she interrogates Worthing about his parentage it’s to the priests’ theme from their Act 3 interrogation of Radamès in Aida. “Salut! demeure” from Faust becomes the recurring motif for Algernon and Cecily’s wooing. When immigration to Australia is considered, the orchestra looses a cascade of snippets from Dvořák’s New World Symphony. “Zion hört die Wächter singen" from Bach’s Wachet auf stands as Reverend Chasuble’s theme song, wittily interrupted by Debussy’s L’après midi d’une faune whenever his mind wanders to ponder Miss Prism’s charms. When Worthing discovers his name really is Ernest, everyone extols “the importance of being Ernest/earnest” to a paraphrase of “Questo nome che suona vittoria” from L’assedio di Corinto ending the opera with a Rossinian flourish. But the Miserere from Il trovatore  provides the most outstanding example of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s ingenuity in this respect. It appears at the first mention of Miss Prism in Act 1, returns later to comment on the word “handbag” prefiguring the denouement of Act 3 when Prism and the handbag will be linked, then expands in that act to include Ferrando's narration from the same opera, recounting a fatal confusion about babies accompanying Prism’s own account of a more benign baby confusion.

Neal Ferreira (Jack Worthing) and Claudia Waite (Lady Bracknell) © Kathy Wittman
Neal Ferreira (Jack Worthing) and Claudia Waite (Lady Bracknell)
© Kathy Wittman

Gil Rose did double duty as conductor and stage director, keeping  things moving in lively, unfussy fashion both in and above the pit. He presided over two pianists playing baby grands (and an electric keyboard for sound effects) plus two percussionists, one on the left (tambourine, cymbals, tam-tam, three triangles, and wood block) the other on the right (two timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals and chimes). He had a dedicated ensemble cast of eight singing actors who entered fully into the charming absurdity of the the plot. The opera’s parlando style does not make the usual operatic demands. Fluidity, breath control, and a flair for expression are crucial for putting over the dialogue Castelnuovo-Tedesco retained in his adaptation (Rose estimated it at 60% of the play). The  singers had them all and not a word was lost.

Rachele Schmiege (Gwendolen Fairfax) and Jeni Houser (Cecily Cardew) © Kathy Wittman
Rachele Schmiege (Gwendolen Fairfax) and Jeni Houser (Cecily Cardew)
© Kathy Wittman

With a minimum of set dressing, Janie E. Howland created Algernon’s London flat and Jack’s country house, using panels decorated with an Art Nouveau pattern and period furniture for the former and tall, flower-decked trellis structures, potted plants and Victorian wickerwork for the latter. Brooke Stanton’s costumes dressed the men nattily in frocks and waistcoats, four-in-hand ties and spats in town and lighter ensembles for the country. The women similarly simplified in the country except Claudia Waite's Lady Bracknell who was consistently bombast-in-bombazine. One touch may have been intended tongue-in-cheek. Jack sports a green carnation in his buttonhole throughout the opera. Though whether it is code or not is still much debated, Gwendolyn would do well not to ignore it. That flower may be saying her husband-to-be’s interests lie elsewhere.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote five operas of which two remain unperformed: All’s Well That Ends Well and Saul (adapted from Alfieri’s play). Given the success of The Importance of Being Earnest, Odyssey Opera should put them on their wish list.

*****