Odyssey Opera's "Earnest": Victoria's Secret

The Cast of "The Importance of Being Earnest"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

What better way to spend St. Patrick's Day than an evening with that ultimate Irish wit, Oscar Wilde? And who knew that his most popular play,The Importance of Being Earnest, had been turned into an opera?   Well, Gil Rose (Artistic and General Director of Odyssey Opera) did, at least after a bit of researching. It turned out that Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (known more for his cinema scoring, for hundreds of Hollywood films including Lassie Come Home and Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray) wrote such an opera (his last of five) in 1961-2, which, while not yet published, was subsequently performed in 1971 in Monte Carlo and in 1975 in New York. It's a three-act opera with eight singers (two tenors, three sopranos, two baritones and a mezzo-soprano) and one non-singing role, supported by two pianos and two percussionists. Intentionally comic quotations abound, with countless witty allusions to prior musical works. Thus it's presented very much tongue in cheek, which must make it awfully difficult to sing, but must be compensated for in that it is performed in English.

The plot follows that of Wilde's original play. Jack Worthing (tenor Neal Ferreira) visits his best friend Algernon Moncrieff (tenor Stefan Barner), who knows him as Ernest in the country, with the intention of proposing to Algernon's cousin Gwendolen Fairfax (soprano Rachele Schmiege). Algernon discovers a cigarette case inscribed “to Uncle Jack from little Cecily”; he learns that Jack is living a double life in the city and that the lady in question is Jack's ward, Cecily Cardew (soprano Jeni Houser), with whom Algernon falls in love. Gwendolen and her mother Lady Bracknell (soprano Claudia Waite) arrive. Lady B. is horrified to discover that Jack was found as a baby left in a handbag at Victoria Station. Meanwhile, Algernon seeks out Reverend Chasuble (baritone James Demler) to be baptized as “Ernest”, since his beloved insists she will only marry someone with that name. All turns on the secret revolving around that handbag, revealed by Cecily's tutor Miss Prism (mezzo-soprano Christina English). And all ends relatively well as Jack declares he has discovered the “vital importance of being Earnest”.

It's a lively piece, even at almost three hours, thanks largely to Conductor and Stage Director Rose, as well as his cast, including the butlers Merriman (baritone Colin Levin) and Lane (J. T. Turner, in a non-singing role). All of the principals are perfectly cast, and, if there's a real standout, it would have to be Waite's Lady B. (as in Battleax?), which is true of virtually every performance of this Wilde work. All of the costumes (designed by Brooke Stanton) are apt, with those of Lady B. amounting to profound social commentary (including one that seems to harbor half of the fauna of Sherwood Forest). The Set Design by local treasure Janie E. Howland is brilliant as usual, as is the Lighting Design by Christopher Ostrom. And the playing by pianists Linda Osborn and Esther Ning Yau and percussionists Robert Schulz and Nicholas Tolle also made the performance sing.

But the most fun of the evening was identifying (or attempting to) those hilarious musical references from so many familiar sources. They included Mendelssohn's Wedding March, Dies Irae, Hail Hail to Poesy, It's a Long Way to Tipperary, Claire de Lune, Tosca, Don Giovanni, II Trovatore, the mad scene from Lucia, and the Marseillaise, and that's just a partial sampling. Especially funny were the interpolation of Rossini's Una voce poco fa and the gossipy Flight of the Bumblebee. These were not arbitrary inclusions in the manner of current jukebox musicals, but were effortlessly and seamlessly utilized, with the most memorable being that of Lady B.'s entrances to the tune of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. This must all be seen and heard to be fully appreciated, to discover Victoria's secret.

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