Have you ever had the unfortunate experience of listening to someone tell a joke badly?
One can see the punch line from a mile away; and yet, the inept comedian takes an interminable amount of time to get to it, to actually make the joke. All sense of surprise is lost. The magical timing, essential to humor, dissipates into thin air. The comedian fumbles. We wince. He forgets the words; he repeats himself. We wait impatiently. We wince again, despite the punch line having no punch. It lands with a limp plop. Only later, when one recalls the joke as a memory, is one able to recognize it on its own terms.
Such was the experience of watching Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Ernest, an utterly dismal operatic adaption of Oscar Wilde’s evergreen play, which received its U.S stage premiere at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater last night—a co-presentation by the New York Philharmonic’s Biennial and Lincoln Center’s Great Performers, the production was by The Royal Opera.
Wilde’s play is like a perfect machine, assembled by a genius mad scientist. It hums, moving swiftly toward a perfect conclusion. The last time I saw the play, on Broadway at the American Airlines Theater in 2011, I found myself overwhelmed by the sheer pleasure of Wilde’s language; it was a sensation not dissimilar to that of a child with a jack-in-the-box: anticipation, surprise, and a surge of delight—I giggled and clapped like a toddler. “This,” I thought, “is what it means to be creative!” It was the zenith of craft, style, and sense.
Cut to: the nadir of it. If one takes Barry’s score at face value, it seems he has a preoccupation with destruction; he certainly destroyed Wilde’s play, not to mention a few cucumber sandwiches, some vocal cords and several dinner plates. The composition and production had no rhyme or reason—except, perhaps, the whims of unchecked self-indulgence: unexplained quotations of Auld Lang Syne? Extended, unnecessary settings of Schiller? Spoken dialogue through megaphones? Needless to say, these unexplained aspects of the score did not illuminate Wilde’s play. In fact, they severely detracted from it, reducing a frothy farce to drudgery and boredom.
I suppose I should not be surprised with Barry’s shenanigans—the proceedings were not beyond the musical tradition from which this student of Stockhausen springs. However, I simply could not stomach the pairing of Barry’s muddled sensibilities with Wilde’s perfect clarity (apparently two thirds of the play’s text have been cut to accommodate the zany score, a fact that surely has Wilde gyrating at Père Lachaise). In short, Barry’s setting strips the play of all its joy, humor, and style—and while Wilde might have enjoyed the opera’s outrageousness, he could hardly have appreciated its vacuity.
With such vulgar, harebrained music, how does one judge the performances? Well, I admire the singers’ gumption. They survived the composer’s sadistic setting with voices relatively capable of phonation, in part thanks to the adroit playing of the New York Philharmonic, under the precise baton of Ilan Volkov.
As Algernon Moncrieff and John Worthing, Benedict Nelson and Paul Curievici were amiable Wildean prototypes, doing their best to seem suave and witty under such grueling conditions. However, despite their athletic singing and physicality, their performances seemed more like endurance tests than outright triumphs.
As Gwendolen Fairfax, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Marshall proved reliable, if a bit bland. Poor Claudia Boyle, as Cecily Cardew, squeaked her way through the piece with admirable courage, despite the stratospheric setting of her character’s vocal line. Her capable soprano was reduced to the sound of a dog whistle. Even so, she looked very pretty, and possessed a promising instrument.
Hilary Summers, as Miss Prism, and Simon Wilding, in the dual role of Lane/Merriman, survived the evening generally unscathed. However, the most unsettling performance came from Alan Ewing as Lady Bracknell. While past gender-bending stage incarnations of the role, by actors like Brian Bedford and Geoffrey Rush, embodied an irresistibly tart drag persona, Ewing’s butch version eschewed any gesture of femininity in favor of bellowing, screaming, and a suit and tie—which is to say, he was nothing more than a patriarchal bully. If the character is called Lady Bracknell, and referred to as aunt Augusta, then why in the world does she wear a suit and tie, and clearly possess a penis? All sexual and historical contexts were undermined. But, more to the point, it wasn’t funny.
And pointless might be the exact word to describe the production by Robin Gray, which tried to pass off random shifts in lighting, broad physical comedy, and excess scenery chewing as serviceable direction. A more generous person might try to chalk it up to a camp aesthetic, but as Susan Sontag so astutely wrote, “Pure camp is always naïve.” In contrast, Gray’s direction was way too cynical, hell-bent on letting you know how hip, provocative, and self-aware it was.
Yes, I don’t see the point. Why did Jack and Lady Bracknell suddenly do a jig? Why was the orchestra on the stage, chanting in rhythm with the singers like members of a suicide cult? These questions went unanswered. And all the while, the composition lurched slowly, lugubriously, toward what was once a statement as lustrous and brilliant as the Hope Diamond: “…I’ve now realised for the first time in my life the vital Importance of being Earnest.” Thud! The joke crashed before its audience, floppy and feckless.
I felt very disillusioned while leaving the Rose Theater, surrounded by upper middle class white people who didn’t know what to say to one another. Again I thought of how pointless the entire evening was: a complete waste of time and money. A perfectly hysterical play ruined. However, I will do my best not to read too much into this experience, to tag the opera as a pernicious symptom of the state of the art. Instead, I will simply try to forget what happened, and put on a recording of another opera set to another play—Salome, which, in its respect for the source material, knows how to get Wilde right.