The wicked, withering wit of Oscar Wilde hardly seems the right stuff for opera. But this is Odyssey Opera’s “Wilde Opera Nights” season, and the company, having already staged Lowell Liebermann’s “The Portrait of Dorian Gray,” left no stone unturned to give us Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s adaptation of Wilde’s 1895 comedy “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Completed in 1962, this opera was never published and has rarely been performed; Odyssey had to get the permission of the composer’s granddaughter to obtain the manuscript from the Library of Congress. The result, in the performance Odyssey gave Friday at the BCA’s Virginia Wimberly Theatre, was well worth the trouble.
Castelnuovo-Tedesco hewed closely to the text, and he scored his work for two pianos and percussion, enabling the singers to preserve the drawing-room quality of the original. Much of the music in this “Earnest,” moreover, will be familiar, since Castelnuovo-Tedesco borrowed from his fellow composers with Wildean abandon. Lady Bracknell is associated with “The Ride of the Valkyries” and the Overture to “The Flying Dutchman”; her scathing reference to the French Revolution occasions a snippet of the “Marseillaise.” Jack and Algernon quarrel to “The Flight of the Bumblebee”; Canon Chasuble is accompanied by music from Bach’s “Wachet auf” and “Sheep May Safely Graze.” Cecily abjures her German lesson to music from “Das Rheingold”; Mozart is represented by the Minuet from “Don Giovanni” and “Non piú andrai” from “The Marriage of Figaro.” We hear from Schubert (“The Trout”), Schumann (“Arabesque”), and, on the occasion of Algernon’s proposed emigration, Dvořák (“New World” Symphony); we get wedding marches from Mendelssohn and Wagner, a funeral march from Chopin, and the plainsong “Dies Irae.” Less elevated allusions range from Gilbert and Sullivan (“H. M. S. Pinafore” and “The Pirates of Penzance”) to “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.”
It’s all the perfect match for Wilde’s sublimely preposterous plot. Jack has fallen for Gwendolen, the cousin of his friend Algernon; Algernon is about to fall for Jack’s ward Cecily. These ladies, however, have always dreamed of marrying a man named Ernest, so both Jack and Algernon try to pass themselves off as Jack’s seemingly nonexistent brother Ernest. Truth and love win out in the end, but when you hear Jack conclude that he now appreciates the importance of being e(a)rnest, you might wonder whether he means the name or the virtue.
Odyssey’s production is fully staged, fervently sung, and stylishly acted. Janie E. Howland’s detailed set designs range from the French Provincial and Art Nouveau of Jack’s West End flat to the rose-festooned trellises and cane furniture of his Hertfordshire country house; Brooke Stanton’s period costumes are sumptuous and expensive-looking. Odyssey artistic director Gil Rose keeps the musical line going while affording the singers time to enunciate properly. There are no supertitles; for the most part they’re not needed.
Neal Ferreira’s Jack is bluff and, by Wildean standards, straightforward; Stefan Barner’s Algernon is more vulnerable and a bit of an intriguer. From the outset, they act almost like brothers — which, it turns out, they are. Rachele Schmiege’s blunt Gwendolen nicely compliments Jeni Houser’s coy Cecily. Claudia Waite is humorously overbearing if not draconian as Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell; James Demler and Christina English make a sweet couple as the upstanding Canon Chasuble and the spinsterish Miss Prism. Jack’s two servants are appropriately imperturbable, J. T. Turner as a sherry-pinching Lane and Colin Levin as a militant Merriman.
Castelnuovo-Tedesco cut many of Wilde’s funniest moments, among them Lane’s deft explanation for the missing cucumber sandwiches and Lady Bracknell’s observation that “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.” Even so, Odyssey’s production runs just over three hours, with two intermissions. Some of the blithe self-absorption of Wilde’s characters is also missing; Rose’s stage direction tends to make everyone more natural and more humane. But kudos to Odyssey for recognizing the importance of this “Earnest.”
“The Importance of Being Earnest”
Opera by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Based on the novel by Oscar Wilde. Directed and conducted by Gil Rose. Sets, Janie E. Howland. Costumes, Brooke Stanton. Lights, Christopher Ostrom. Presented by Odyssey Opera. At: Boston Center for the Arts, Calderwood Pavilion, Virginia Wimberly Theatre, Friday March 17. Remaining performance: March 18. Tickets $50-$100. 617-826-1626, www.odysseyopera.org
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.