Reviewed: The Importance of Being Earnest and Gloriana

Alexandra Coghlan explores two very different productions that share a certain whimsical aesthetic: <em>The Importance of Being Earnest</em> and <em>Gloriana</em>.

The Importance of Being Earnest; Gloriana
Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House; Royal Opera House

This year the Linbury Studio Theatre finally came under the artistic control of the Royal Opera. Until now the smaller space, so useful for contemporary and chamber works, has had little by way of logic to its interesting if haphazard programming, and still less relationship to main-stage productions. Director of Opera Kasper Holten has hailed the change as an opportunity to bring new “coherence” to things, and while we’ll have to wait till later in the season to test this fully, this month’s joyous dialogue of contemporary operas certainly seems a sign of good things to come.

We started with the UK stage premiere of Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Debuted last year in an astonishing concert performance at the Barbican, the opera is that rarest of things, a genuine contemporary classic, even at first hearing. The musical headlines might sound ominous – a refrain of smashing plates (some fifty pieces of crockery meet a shattering end in each performance), a spoken “duet” through two megaphones – but the result is a comic delight, and that in a completely different way to Wilde’s original.

It would be so easy for a composer to rely on Wilde’s words (used unaltered here, except for a few cuts) to carry a score, shaping the music around the distinctive arc and climax of his wit. But fellow Irishman Barry recognises the dangers of this, and subverts all expectations by neatly severing the nerve connections between meaning and music. Words become another percussive texture for him to add to his joyous cacophony, another tool in his elegant parable of absurdism. There’s an anarchy, a danger looming beneath the neat triangles of Wilde’s cucumber sandwiches and maiden aunts that Barry brings to the surface, revelling in reducing an English drawing room comedy to a Irish farce.

It’s fortunate that Earnest is such a strong work, because in Ramin Gray’s minimalist production it gets very little dramatic help. The members of the Britten Sinfonia sit onstage – a nod perhaps to the singers’ textural lines that render them just another instrumental texture. In theory this makes sense but in practice it causes balance issues is you happen to be seated on their side of the auditorium. A few flowers, some muffins and a political economy textbook, and you have the set. There’s a half-hearted attempt at some meta-theatre as singers bleed in and out of the audience, but Gray doesn’t seem to have much to say with it.

The singing – if lacking the incomparable Barbara Hannigan of the premiere – is excellent however, with a young cast tackling Barry’s grinning complexities with gusto. Benedict Nelson is a rakishly charming Algernon, balanced by the perpetually distrait Paul Curievici as John. But they are outclassed by Stephanie Marshall’s Gwendolen (charm and venom in equally beautifully enunciated measure) and Ida Falk Winland in the terrifyingly virtuosic role of Cecily. Hilary Summers (Miss Prism) and the cross-cast Alan Ewing as Lady Bracknell vie for comic supremacy, and the resulting bun-fight is an exhilarating a night at the theatre as you’ll find – one in the eye for those determined to make contemporary opera a po-faced affair.

Whimsy is also in plentiful supply in Richard Jones’ new production of Gloriana for the Royal Opera House’s main stage. Composed originally for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation celebrations, Britten’s opera is a tricky creature that has suffered, perhaps justly, from some neglect since its premiere. The starched-and-polished odour of officialdom hangs around it, chafing against the anti-establishment tendencies of Britten’s personal value in the public pageantry that it seemingly offers. Yet there are cross-currents at work here, and it is these that Jones so unerringly finds out in his exemplary new staging.

Jones wittily frames the tale of the ageing Elizabeth I’s obsession with the Earl of Essex in the context of the work’s own composition – not so much a play-within-a-play as a masque-within-a-masque. Thus the young Elizabeth II arrives at a village hall to witness a laborious tudorbethan community pageant, staged for her entertainment. In a final, inevitable, coup de theatre the two queens come face to face – youthful monarchy staring her future in the face. It’s a sober conclusion to a production that wears the opera’s weighty themes with elegant lightness, offering an emotional chiaroscuro we don’t always get from Jones.

Ultz’s set keeps the central doublet-and-hosed action balanced with offstage goings-on, framing a riot of colourful excess in rather more sober shades. An impeccably-drilled troupe of schoolboys march on with destination placards as the actions moves from palace to city, only outdone as gleeful spectacle by the masque section, with staging decked out in a gaudy display of vegetables. It’s vintage Jones – inventive, entirely OTT, and completely spot-on dramatically.

Britten’s gift for word-setting is sorely tried in Gloriana by William Plomer’s leaden libretto. Fortunately the current Royal Opera cast sing so well that text becomes mere punctuation for some glorious sounds. Toby Spence, recovering from serious illness, makes a fine return as Essex, crooning lute-songs that few could resist. Susan Bullock finds Elizabeth’s imperious chill but also her vulnerability, even if she doesn’t quite equal Josephine Barstow’s performance in Phyllida Lloyd’s classic production. Clive Bayley’s Raleigh, Mark Stone’s Mountjoy and Kate Royal’s Lady Rich all offer strong support, and only Patricia Bardon’s Countess of Essex hasn’t quite the vocal flair she usually brings.

2013 has the feeling of a watershed year in the Royal Opera’s history. Programming is more bolder, casting more luxurious than ever. Holten himself returns as director in the Autumn, and it’ll be interesting to see whether this new life-force at Covent Garden can bring as much interest to his artistic work as his policy-making.

The cast of "The Importance of Being Earnest". Photograph: Royal Opera House/Stephen Cummiskey
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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser