Odyssey Opera elected to begin its “Wilde Opera Nights season with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s adaptation of “The Importance of Being Earnest” on the Irish high holiday, St. Patrick’s Day, at the Wimberly Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Calderwood Pavilion. Though a loyal Irishman to the core, Oscar Wilde was a resident of London when he wrote his most popular play, a great satire of Victorian England’s attitudes and customs. Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968) was born into a prominent Jewish family in Florence, Italy, but due to encroaching fascism and war, he took his family to the United States in 1939 and became an American citizen in 1948. Needless to say, his is not a name that springs immediately to mind in connection with an Irish-English playwright who enjoyed the peak of his success in the 1890s. However, the composer did not attempt to recreate the English music of Wilde’s heyday, opting instead to create an intricate pastiche of mostly familiar quotations from other composers’ works, from various periods. In fact, these tunes are mostly chosen for their value as sly jokes, pointing up Wilde’s delicious dialogue and, occasionally, modulating the mood. Gil Rose, Artistic and General Director of Odyssey Opera, here served as conductor and stage director. Following Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s scoring, two pianists, Linda Osborn and Esther Ning Yau (at two pianos), collaborated with two percussionists, Robert Schulz and Nicholas Tolle.
The relatively short overture seemed to be original music, and the composer followed the dictum “write what you know”, using a distinctly 20th-century idiom. Though, being unapologetically tonal and often melodic, it was no doubt deemed reactionary by his contemporaries in 1962. It set a fairly light-hearted mood without evoking the play’s setting or time. (Later, given the wide range of quoted composers’ nationalities and periods, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a specific reason Castelnuovo-Tedesco chose to avoid incorporating any discernible tunes of Elgar, Stanford, etc.) The playing of the instrumentalists was effective and expressive if not always perfectly coordinated. At the overture’s conclusion, the curtain lifted to reveal the elegant interior of Algernon Moncrieff’s London flat. The sets in general worked well to suggest 1890s England, both the city and countryside. Kudos to Scenic Designer Janie E. Howland. The first music heard was Chopin—played on an electric keyboard set on “harp” for reasons that escape me—a simulation of Algernon attempting to play the piano in an adjoining room, badly: much of Castelnuovo-Tesdesco’s “adaptation” was in at least two keys simultaneously, and Algy’s manservant, Lane, “didn’t think it polite to listen.” As Algernon, Stefan Barner made use of a handsome lyric tenor voice, and his attire convincingly combined youthful elegance with a touch of prissiness. In short order, Algy’s friend Mr. Worthing arrives, introducing his subterfuges based on an invented identity—Ernest—he adopts when in the city; the rest of the time, “Ernest” is his wastrel younger brother. This gentleman was well portrayed by tenor Neal Ferreira who managed to convey a friendly but subtly patronizing attitude to his slightly younger companion. When it comes out that Mr. Worthing’s true name is Jack, Algernon is exasperated, but Jack offers his explanation in unruffled manner, to the accompaniment of a Mozart minuet. This only heightens the humor when it is quickly revealed that Algy has engaged in a very similar deceit, using a counterfeit friend in the country he has named Bunbury; this personage has apparently been at death’s door for years and tends to have “relapses” when it is most desirable for his inventor to leave the city abruptly. During Algy’s explanation, the underlying music is Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee”. However, when he states that “Bunbury” has allowed him to avoid dining with relatives recently, the music shifts to the ominous “Dies irae” plainchant, a premonition of the approach of the formidable Lady Bracknell, aka Algy’s Aunt Augusta.
Quite soon, the doorbells peal out “in Wagnerian manner” by means of the large percussion ensemble’s chimes with mallets, signaling the arrival of Lady Bracknell. In keeping with Wilde’s descriptive epithet, the music heralding the entrance of the battleax is heralded by Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, which generated more than a few chuckles among the audience. A fully successful Lady Bracknell requires an actress/singer who is larger than life regarding voice, stature, costuming, and indeed, overall character. Soprano Claudia Waite (and Costume Designer Brooke Stanton) met all these requirements entirely satisfactorily. As befit the character, Waite tended to dominate nearly every scene she appeared in, aided by a voice of considerable power and a highly expressive face that easily registered authority, “majestic indignation”, maternal concern (or over-protectiveness, if you like), and the “natural ignorance” she holds sacred. Also arriving is Lady Bracknell’s daughter, Miss Gwendolen Fairfax, a glamorous young lady of privilege, not nearly as ossified as her mother and hoping to be soon engaged to “Ernest”. Indeed, when Jack and Gwendolen are together, they flirt rather ostentatiously–to her mother’s ill-concealed disgust–though they occasionally crossed a line authentic Victorians would not have. After Jack has told Gwendolen that she is “quite perfect”, she responds that she hopes she is not as it would leave no room for further development, “and I intend to develop in many directions.” At this point her gaze fell momentarily on her beloved’s midsection–causing him to do a quick self-examination, slightly panicked. Aside from this dramaturgical misstep (no doubt, the result of an unfortunate directing choice), soprano Rachele Schmiege was a charming Miss Fairfax, of sweet disposition but not to be trifled with, innocent but not naïve, and ever attentive to the latest fashions. Algy creates a diversion by shepherding his aunt to another room to examine his proposed music program for her next dinner party (with Castelnuovo-Tedesco quoting Schubert’s song, The Trout); Jack and Gwendolen seize the opportunity to declare extravagantly their feelings for each other, and she goes on to rhapsodize about his supposed Christian name, Ernest. When Jack anxiously asks her if she couldn’t love him if he were named, say, Jack, she waves aside such “metaphysical speculations” and patiently explains–over snickering music–that the “only really safe name is Ernest.” When Jack rather hastily proposes to his beloved, she announces her prior intention to accept him. In the other choreographical gaffe, the pair end up on the sofa, he supine and she fully atop him–a configuration that, even fully clothed, takes us beyond the realm of comedy of manners. It also does not comport with the dialogue: when Waite makes an unexpected, sudden return to the room and spies them, she bellows, “Rise, sir, from this semi-recumbent [i.e., kneeling] posture.” She then tells the “betrothed” pair that Gwendolen will be engaged to no one until Lady or Lord Bracknell informs her of the fact. After she has swept out of the house in high dudgeon, Jack bemoans his dilemma to Algy and, realizing the necessity of permanently assuming the identity of Ernest, wonders how best to kill off the fictional one. Act I ends with Algy regarding the whole fraught situation as a lark, to Jack’s great annoyance.
The second act opens on a charming garden scene, cue pastoral sicilienne, at Jack’s country house where his nubile 18-year-old ward and niece, Cecily Cardew, is half-heartedly attempting to concentrate on her German lesson. When her tutor and governess, Miss Prism, comes to monitor her progress, the music becomes echt deutsch with Wagner’s “Magic Fire Music” from the Ring cycle. One might carry this particular quotation’s significance further than most: it refers to the imprisoning of a rebellious virgin–the daughter of an authority figure–behind a wall of protective fire that only a hero can breach. And as Cecily, soprano Jeni Houser both looked and acted like the paradigm of Anglo-Saxon purity and, seemingly, naïveté. Attired in a frilly, all-white frock, she is the quintessential Sweet Young Thing. Mezzo Christina English made Miss Prism the devoted spinster domestic, lamenting the troubles inflicted on Jack by his libertine brother Ernest–without knowing the half of it. When the local clergyman, Reverend Chasuble, also arrives, we hear Bach’s “Sleepers, Awake”, best known in Bach’s own arrangement as an organ chorale prelude. It was instructive as well as humorous to watch baritone James Demler create this character using the power of understatement. His longing for Miss Prism is initially invisible until he uses a metaphor that’s slightly too concretely physical–and catches himself too late. Even the relatively unworldly Cecily can see what’s going on and enjoys playing a discreet game of match-making. The musical backdrop of Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun”, however, soon reverts to “Sleepers, Awake” when the reverend and the tutor go off to enjoy a walk together.
The cleverly misnamed, overstarched butler, Merriman (baritone Colin Levin, resounding in voice and manner), enters to announce the arrival of “Mr. Ernest Worthing”. Cecily is as intrigued as the audience since Jack has never allowed his scandal-prone “brother” to come to his country house. It may not be a great surprise that Ernest turns out to be Algernon Moncrieff, scheming to meet Cecily, but playwright and composer mine the situation for its comic treasures: Cecily, though initially disappointed that a “wicked person” looks just like an ordinary one, nonetheless is quickly drawn to “Ernest” (that irresistible name) and he to her. Vowing to reform himself–with Cecily’s help, of course–Algy escorts her into the house. Chasuble and Prism return from their walk and again make veiled references to their simpatico; this time it is Prism who who gives herself away unintentionally via a metaphor. Jack soon enters, sobbing melodramatically: Ernest has abruptly died (Chopin funeral march). Prism and Chasuble react with ostensible dismay to the demise of a man they have never met. Cecily reënters and, upon learning the reason for her uncle’s funereal garb, unwittingly throws a monkey-wrench into his scheme by saying she has a pleasant surprise for him: “Ernest” is at the house, alive and well. When Algy appears, Ferreira vividly enacts Jack’s witches’-brew of emotions, e.g., terror that he may be found out; fury at Algy for turning up without notice in the country, with obvious intentions; guilt for not spending enough time with Cecily to have prevented this situation altogether; and disbelief (tinged with dismay?) that his “brother” has returned to the living. After the others leave, Cecily and Algy lose no time starting discussions of their upcoming ceremony; Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” provides a second religious leitmotiv.
In due course, Gwendolen shows up too, meeting Cecily alone first. Despite an initial declaration of sisterhood, when the two find out that they are both engaged to “Ernest”, a quasi-genteel spat ensues. The inspired choice of music is Rossini’s Una voce poco fa with its increasingly brilliant competitive coloratura. Schmiege and Houser reveled in the musical and dramatic display. At length, both suitors appear and are compelled to reveal their schemes. The women find common cause in rejecting their erstwhile beaux, particularly since neither is actually named Ernest. Their instant reversion to mutual warmth upon learning the truth, is another humorous high point, but standing on principle, they stay detached from their swains.
The young men have both chosen to be re-christened Ernest for the sake of their brides; they quickly win them over with their willingness to endure “this fearful ordeal”. Lady Bracknell arrives seeking Gwendolen and allowing the story to come full circle. At last, Algy is backed into a corner and must kill off “Bunbury”: Castelnuovo-Tedesco somehow manages to combine both “Flight of the Bumblebee” and the “Dies irae”. In striking parallel with Act I, our resident Valkyrie takes a dim view of her nephew’s visible affection for Cecily–until she learns of the considerable fortune that belongs to the young lady. Waite again gave us a wonderful, near-literal 180-degree pivot, taking out her lorgnette to examine Cecily’s profile for “social possibilities”. However, the still disgruntled Jack categorically forbids Cecily to marry Algernon unless Lady Bracknell will agree to his own union with Gwendolen. The resulting impasse is only broken by the arrival of Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism.
In a dénouement reminiscent of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, it is revealed that Miss Prism was once the nursemaid in Lord and Lady Bracknell’s house and in a distracted moment ‘lost” a baby, the son of Lady Bracknell’s late sister. Jack realizes that he was that baby and embraces Miss Prism despite thinking she is his unwed mother. English was perhaps a bit too reserved in reacting to this charge, however affectionately made. However, she directs him back to Lady Bracknell so that he may learn who he really is. With the revelation that he is actually Algy’s elder brother, we hear a weird combination of Mozart’s Deh vieni alla finestra (Don Giovanni’s mandolin serenade to his latest paramour) and “Chopsticks”. Poring through military records from years back (his deceased father was a general), Jack learns that he was genuinely named—surprise! —Ernest, after his father. Given America’s odd relationship with truth of late, his reaction was unusually resonant: “ . . . it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth.” After Lady Bracknell has to accept both marriages—and likely that of Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism as well—the composer takes a small liberty with the ending, making her part of the chorus of enthusiastic believers in the vital Importance of Being Earnest. Given the commonness of operatic choral endings, it would take a curmudgeon to criticize this decision. As much a divertissement as an opera, Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s work might well prove to be an effective bridge to audiences who ordinarily will have nothing to do with opera but love a good staged satire (and familiarity with other classical genres can’t hurt). I am grateful to Odyssey Opera, Gil Rose, and his talented musicians and crew for an opportunity to see this very rare but worthwhile work.