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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 cast of "The Importance of Being Earnest". Photograph: Royal Opera House/Stephen Cummiskey

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.