The Importance of Being Earnest - Royal Opera House, 14 June 2013 (first night)
Gerald Barry's comic masterpiece achieves two rare distinctions. Not just genuinely funny, it seems to be (rarer still) director-proof too. The Royal Opera House advertise this as the opera's "first UK staging". But with the orchestra on one side of the stage, a few plates of buns passing for scenery on the other, and the cast seemingly dressed in their own clothes, Ramin Grey's production has little to distinguish it from last year's Barbican concert version.
In a way it does the opera a favour, leaving the libretto Barry ingeniously pruned from Wilde's play and his savagely inappropriate music nothing to hide behind. The superficial anarchy of Barry's brassy stop-start score conceals rigorous construction. It inverts and exposes the animal rage lurking behind Wilde's artful epithets, most memorably in the serial plate-smashing that accompanies Gwendolen's barbed introduction to Cecily. The few lyrical moments, mostly to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, are brutally parodic. The opera doesn't need the cheap laughs Grey extracts from sandwich stuffing and cake tossing; the ridiculous anti-word setting and impossible vocal challenges provide all the humour required.
The cast are all splendid. But by acting out the fury of the music instead of the gentility of the words, the characters lose their humanity. A nuanced study of behaviour becomes a slapstick zoo. The only truly staged version so far, at Opéra National de Lorraine, goes for Victorian surrealism, which I suspect complements the work far better.
Musical values are high, with the Britten Sinfonia gamely stamping their feet and chanting as required, on top of negotiating the tricky score accurately. All the singers are excellent too, with Ida Falk Winland's tweety Cecily and Hilary Summers' robust Miss Prism the standouts.
I have a financial moan. If the budget was really as limited as the staging suggests, perhaps the singers could have entered and exited conventionally instead of occupying most of the front row - a ticket income loss of well over £1,000 over the several sold-out shows by my reckoning. It might have been artistically defensible with some stagings, but not this one. Of course a thousand quid is nothing to the ROH, with its cooked-up 'turnover' of £100m, but it's a fortune to the many smaller companies whose government funding has been cut to keep the ROH and other large institutions afloat.
Production photos (below) Stephen Cummiskey/ROH