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BWW Opera Review: Not Wild for Barry's Earnest Take on Wilde's EARNEST at NY PHIL BIENNIAL

From left: Paul Curievici, Benedict Nelson,
Alan Ewing, Kevin West, Claudia Boyle,
Stephanie Marshall. Photo: Chris Lee

"There is no sense in which [the play] THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST needs to be an opera." Those words aren't mine, but come directly from an article by Paul Kilbey in the program at last week's U.S. stage premiere of Irish composer/lyricist Gerald Barry's 2010 opera THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST.

But I couldn't agree more with the sentiment.

Not that there was anything wrong with the music, which wended its way through various styles, from 'Auld Lang Syne' to aggressively modern, and was frequently great fun to listen to. It was played by a game chamber group culled from the NY Philharmonic, under Ilan Volkov's fluid hand, that seemed ready for anything, including acting as the de facto chorus. In fact, as I sat through the piece--co-presented by the New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center's Great Performers as part of the Lincoln Center-New York Philharmonic Opera Initiative--I kept thinking that it would have been so much better as a symphonic work, jumping around, squealing and making fun of the characters in a way that only music can do.

But the libretto kept getting in the way, deflecting attention from music; paraphrasing Oscar Wilde's play--his comic masterpiece--frankly makes no sense at all, except for those who don't know the play well enough to realize that it has been eviscerated in order to redact it. Back to Kilbey's article in the program, which says "the opera thrives on the companionable clash generated by their [Barry's and Wilde's] highly contrasting styles."


The magic in Wilde's EARNEST is language and cutting it to shreds--call it the "Mad Magazine" version of the play--is necessary for the composer to do his work. Here, Barry did his own libretto, which was reputedly written in record time to meet the deadline for his commission from the LA Philharmonic and London's Barbican Center. So it's the more remarkable that the music's so good, considering the disservice the librettist did to the composer, er, himself.

Antonio Salieri may have written a one-act PRIMA LA MUSICA E POI LE PAROLE (First the music and then the words), also the theme of Richard Strauss's CAPRICCIO, but by definition, the libretto of an opera--certainly a contemporary one--has to tell the composer where it's going, in order to leave room for the music to breathe life into the characters. (I wonder what the librettist had to say to the composer about why Lady Bracknell is not only sung by a bass--the able Alan Ewing--but why she is a stuffy man in a suit [not in drag, a la Brian Bedford's great stage effort].)

I don't deny there was good singing and some frantic fun going on in Ramin Gray's production, originally done for the Royal Opera's intimate Linbury Studio, with the inestimable contributions of movement director Leon Baugh. (The utilitarian opera-in-concert-ish set design was by Ben Clark, after an idea by Johannes Schutz, with lighting by Franz Peter David and costumes by Christina Cunningham.) In particular, I liked the scenes of wooing of Gwendolen (the droll mezzo Stephanie Fairfax) and Cecily (the lively soprano Claudia Boyle) by Jack/Ernest (the befuddled tenor Paul Curievici) and Algy (the conniving baritone Benedict Nelson) and recognition scene with Miss Prism (the amusing contralto Hilary Summers), where Jack finds out his true identity--but in general there was little gained from restating the original with less style.

If, indeed, as the program stated, the composer realized "the vital importance of not being Wilde," maybe that's what he should have called it--for I don't think there was enough EARNEST-ness to it.

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From This Author Richard Sasanow

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