Arts & Culture Editor Eimear Hurley takes a look at the recent outing of The Importance of Being Earnest at the Cork Opera House
Having premiered with great success in Los Angeles and London this year, The Importance of Being Earnest is currently in the midst of its Irish tour. The production is compellingly courageous, and while absurd, might not stray very far from Wilde’s intents for the play. The Importance of Being Earnest pokes fun at the farcical nature of Victorian society and behaviour. The opera adds some intriguing added subtexts and mini-scenes, staying true to Wilde’s description of the play as ‘a trivial comedy for serious people.’
There is undeniably some serious singing involved, with leaping, disjointed vocal lines that would put any virtuoso to the pin of their collar. The absurdness of Wilde’s characters is wonderfully complemented by the music. Soprano Aoife Miskelly’s astronomical high notes are impeccably delivered, but the hysterical character who voices them makes the audience laugh, especially when all she is saying is “I like his hair so much.”
The internationally renowned Crash Ensemble, conducted by Pierre-André Valade, act as another character in the production. The instruments frequently interrupt the singers mid-sentence, and sometimes mid-word. Barry’s score is highly energetic from beginning to end, supporting the singers and delighting the audience.
The bizarre highlight of the opera is the duet between Miss Fairfax and Cecily, which is sung through loud-hailers . That’s not quite strange enough for Barry, though, so the brilliant servant character smashes plates into a bin between Miss Fairfax’s words. He comes back to do this when Lady Bracknell rather inexplicably shoots all of the other characters, ruining Wilde’s perfectly comedic ending.
If the music is a little alienating, the set and lighting make the audience feel a part of the show. Onstage lights are pointed toward the seats, and directors chairs are used as props instead of the Queen Anne chairs one might have expected. Monochrome is a major design theme, with splashes of colour thrown in by the gentlemen’s and Miss Prism’s attire.
The humour of the piece really lies in Wilde’s words and characterisation. Barry’s score unquestionably brings out the satire, but it is sometimes overdone. The scene where John throws approximately a hundred teddy bears onto the stage in his search for Miss Prism’s handbag is funny for about three seconds, but goes on for three minutes. Lady Bracknell is just an enigma. She is played by a man, she sports a hat in the shape of a hand, wields a fishing rod, and bursts randomly into German song. While all of this is thoroughly entertaining, it sometimes distracts from Wilde’s wit.
The interesting thing about the opera is that Gerald Barry and these musicians take their music extremely seriously, so they risk undermining it in a piece so fiercely satirical as this. Avant-garde music will continue to be supported and performed, but productions like this question its integrity.