Gerald Barry’s operatic setting of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest may not yet have notched up the number of performances and productions of George Benjamin’s roughly contemporary Written on Skin, but it is already being similarly talked of as a modern classic. It has won a Royal Philharmonic Society award and had its recording nominated for a Grammy and now returns to the London stage in a revival of the Royal Opera’s UK debut production from three years ago. On that occasion, it had been given at the ROH’s own Linbury Theatre, but while that space undergoes a much-needed rebuild, the company’s smaller productions are taking to the road, and in this case to the Barbican Theatre.

Benedict Nelson (Algernon Moncrieff) and Claudia Boyle (Cecily Cardew) © ROH | Stephen Cummiskey
Benedict Nelson (Algernon Moncrieff) and Claudia Boyle (Cecily Cardew)
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey
This venue’s notably dry acoustic proves apt for the wry, often anarchic musical and dramatic resources that Barry calls upon in his treatment of Wilde’s greatest play. At one level, composer and playwright seem the unlikeliest of matches, despite their common Irish roots. One would expect Barry’s energetic, pungent modernism to be ill-suited to the crafted wit of Wilde’s subtle and often intricately wrought prose. Yet that’s partly where the success of the resulting piece lies. Barry deliberately and constantly subverts our expectations, transcending the original and creating something completely new. He gets through acres of Wilde’s text (heavily cut for the purposes of his opera) in almost patter style and to motoric regular rhythms that play against word stress and meaning; and then he sets the most mundane of phrases such as “They have been eating muffins” to extravagant melismas. Jack’s wooing of Gwendolen is set to a melodically circling version of Auld lang syne, and his own name, with its percussive brevity, becomes almost a musical motif of its own when she repeatedly spits out her horror of it. Elsewhere, both Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism separately launch into their own vocal settings of Schiller’s Ode to Joy in the original German (and some distance from Beethoven’s), and the scene of bickering between Gwendolen and Cecily is conducted via megaphones to the accompaniment of regular off-beat smashing of plates.

Ramin Gray’s stage direction, revised for this new space, adds its own level of enjoyable perverseness, controlled mayhem and humour. From the ‘fourth wall’-defying ploy of having the cast members occupying the front row of the stalls when not on stage (proving that not every farce needs doors) to the clever interaction of singers and on-stage instrumentalists, everything comes together to give Barry’s 90-minute score the context it needs. As with the music, the production plays with our pre-conceived ideas and completely dispels any sense of the play’s Victorian roots. Lady Bracknell, played by a basso profundo (nothing strange there, given the drag interpretations on the West End stage and elsewhere), is here a man in a pinstripe suit; failed novelist Miss Prism reads Fifty Shades... while her pupil Cecily is distracted; the entire cast brings out mobile phones to look up Jack’s father in the Army List.

Claudia Boyle (Cecily Cardew) and Hilary Summers (Miss Prism) © ROH | Stephen Cummiskey
Claudia Boyle (Cecily Cardew) and Hilary Summers (Miss Prism)
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey

Most of the cast members are alumni of the production’s initial run in 2013, and they all played their roles with such relish that one can imagine they’ve been itching to return to them in the intervening years. Despite all the composer’s frequent writing against vocal type – a challenge to the singer in itself – it wasn’t enough to hide the sheer elan and musicianship involved in bringing these characters to life. Paul Curievici (Jack) and Benedict Nelson (Algernon) both had their moments of refined lyricism yet were equally adept at quick-delivery one-liners and farcical stage business. Stephanie Marshall’s Gwendolen conveyed just the right vocal weight to suggest that she could indeed become like her mother, Lady B; and Claudia Boyle’s Royal Opera debut as Cecily brought a neat line in anarchically flighty coloratura to her portrayal. Alan Ewing was a commanding Lady Bracknell, with the odd touch of fragile falsetto to counteract the character’s storming off into German elsewhere, and contralto Hilary Summers used her own ‘profundo’ range to give weight to her encapsulation of Miss Prism’s insecurities. Kevin West, also new to the cast, made the most of his cameo as Chasuble the parson, as did Simon Wilding with his ever-present but vocally reticent Lane/Merriman, the servant seemingly getting his ‘revenge’ with a last plate-smashing spree to close the work. The running text projected on to the back wall of the stage was superflouous given the excellent diction from everyone involved.

The accompanying chamber ensemble has a virtuoso role in Barry’s score, and the players of the Britten Sinfonia under conductor Tim Murray were constantly kept on their toes. The playing was brash, refined and dazzling as required and the brass in particular – from trilling horns to stratospherically dancing trumpet – deserve particular praise.