Interviewed at the Barbican Centre last year, Stephen Fry described Gerald Barry’s score for The Importance of Being Earnest (2010) rather unfavourably as “taking a machete to a soufflé”. However, this zany opera based on Oscar Wilde’s classic play of 1895 has already emerged victorious from concert premières in Los Angeles and London. It has had audiences guffawing with abandon at its array of Second Viennese School parodies, plate-smashing at the tea table, and musical mash-ups of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Auld Lang Syne. Unsurprisingly, the staged UK première at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre this month has sold out. The performance gave us a first taste of Barry’s collaboration with director Ramin Gray and their attempts to bring this comic masterpiece to life.

Ida Falk Winland as Cecily, Simon Wilding as Lane, Benedict Nelson as Algernon © ROH / Stephen Cummiskey
Ida Falk Winland as Cecily, Simon Wilding as Lane, Benedict Nelson as Algernon
© ROH / Stephen Cummiskey

Wilde described The Importance of Being Earnest as treating “all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality”. The play offers a facetious display of Edwardian values whereby the most whimsical of desires, such as marrying a man with the name Earnest, assume paramount significance. In a similar fashion, Barry’s score could be seen to make a nonsense of operatic codes and a rationale out of nonsense. It is dominated by ungracious rhythmical thrusts, pulsations that overtake the singers, and ludicrous ruptures. Far from providing a musical context for the narrative, the score is simply the driving force that propels the singers forward. Paul Griffiths’ programme note characterises it as “a merry-go-round, speedy and brilliantly painted, from which they [the cast] yell out as they pass”. Indeed, the “yelling out” consists of piercing shrieks, endless virtuosic runs at inconsequential moments, and the hacking-up of words into their constituent syllables.

In this production, the stage, composed of downward steps extending into the audience, had no wings or exits. With the cast climbing up from front-row seats to perform and Britten Sinfonia positioned along the descent, the boxed-in entertainment had a Beckettian feel to it. This served the eccentricities of Barry’s score well, but shirt starch and corsetry were sorely missed on the wardrobe front. While there was no obligation to produce period costume, Gray’s everyman attire did little to enhance the polarities between outrageous caprice and courteous civility that are latent in Wilde’s play and active in Barry’s music.

The cast were attuned to the hilarity of important episodes within the drama. Highlights included Alan Ewing’s fascist outbursts as the bellicose (and male) Lady Bracknell, Hilary Summers’ demented flights of fancy as Miss Prism, and Ida Falk Winland’s shrill bel canto as the bespectacled Cecily Cardew. The most memorable scene, however, was undoubtedly the afternoon tea between Gwendolen (Stephanie Marshall) and Cecily. Initially, niceties were exchanged through megaphones, but the conversation quickly turned sour. At the climax, Marshall proceeded to attack her tea-companion with acerbic remarks while 40 dinner plates were systematically demolished by a percussionist on the off-beats. This “ostinato” for fractured china made a fabulous din, and was a masterstroke on Barry’s part. Other noteworthy moments were the merry jigs danced by Earnest (Paul Curievici) and Lady Bracknell as they disputed the validity of his marriage proposal, and the serial duet sung by Algernon (Benedict Nelson) and Earnest about cucumber sandwiches.

Such comic moments aside, it was Tim Murray’s conducting and Britten Sinfonia’s superb playing that really stole the show. The ensemble morphed into the half-crazed merry-go-round the programme note promised, and the sheer energy of the music was a force to be reckoned with on stage. Navigating Barry’s difficult score, the players delivered unwieldy material with a tongue-in-cheek air. At points when the musicians were required to speak, they reported Wilde’s text as a robotic collective. Murray’s leadership was flawless throughout.

“History has shown how hard it is to write comic operas”, writes Kasper Holten, the Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House, in his welcome note. Numerous works by Mozart and Rossini perhaps suggest otherwise, yet The Importance of Being Earnest certainly succeeds in presenting a fresh and original style of operatic humour. Barry’s musical language is free from pretence. Instead of ingratiating himself with past traditions, he engages them in an awkward dance and puts his feet wherever he pleases. There is something marvellous about this impertinence and the creative liberties that arise from it.