Arts theater review

When all along, you’ve been telling the truth

Odyssey Opera performs Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”

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Rachele Schmiege as Gwendolen Fairfax (left) Jeni Houser as Cecily Cardew (right) in The Importance of Being Earnest.
Photo credit: Kathy Wittman

Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”
Presented by Odyssey Opera
Librettist and Composer: Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco
Director and Conductor: Gil Rose
Mar. 17-18, 2017
Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts

After seeing Odyssey Opera’s earlier adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, also conducted by Gil Rose, I was excited to see Odyssey Opera’s second addition to this season of Wilde Opera Nights. Aptly subtitled as a “trivial comedy for serious people,” The Importance of Being Earnest is a satirical exploration of Victorian courtship and mistaken identity, a lighthearted play without the gravitas of Dorian Gray but with the same biting wit as Wilde’s other writings.

Two bachelors, Algernon Moncrieff (Stefan Barner) and John (Jack) Worthing (Neal Ferreira), meet in Algernon’s flat to lament their romantic situations. Algernon is in love with Cecily Cardew (Jeni Houser), Jack’s ward, while Jack is in love with Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax (Rachele Schmiege). Their obstacles are Gwendolen’s mother, the scathing — and brilliantly portrayed  — Lady Bracknell (Claudia Waite), who disapproves of Jack due to his questionable background, and Jack himself who refuses to let Algernon marry Cecily.

Meanwhile, both Jack and Algernon live double lives — an act that Algernon has dubbed as “Bunburying.” Jack lives as Ernest in London and as Jack (his real name) in the country, while Algernon pretends to visit his friend Bunbury in the countryside when he wishes to leave. Yet both are compelled to lie about their identities as they find out their greatest misfortune in an absurd twist: both Gwendolen and Cecily dream of marrying a man named Ernest, a name that “inspires absolute confidence,” unlike the drearily boring names of Jack and Algernon.

Yet our two male leads find themselves unable to escape the Victorian social norms. Algernon questions the value of marriage, yet finds himself asking for Cecily’s hand in marriage. Despite earning Gwendolen's love, Jack still finds himself under Lady Bracknell’s scrutiny as his social class and family are drawn to the forefront.

Questioning Jack’s origins and Gwendolen’s finances, Lady Bracknell is a comical yet powerful force of Victorian tradition as she whips around her walking stick and snaps at the four young lovers; Waite’s comedic facial expressions tell it all. While the comedic acting of the other actors are noteworthy, Waite merits special praise for her powerful stage presence.

The set design and costuming are an enchanting sight to behold. Particularly of note is the Garden of the Manor House in Act II, a symmetrical design of a bench on both sides and the door leading to the house in the center, surrounded by roses. As the truth of “Ernest” comes to light, both women leave the garden through the central doors while the two men can only look on from both sides of the stage: a symmetrical image of two false identities and two failed romances.

Ironically, the performance’s faithfulness to the original is both its greatest strength and weakness. Audience members enjoy the witty dialogue lifted directly from the original but are forced to wade through the slow pacing of the first and second acts; stretching spoken dialogue to fit music only perpetuates the problem. Fortunately, Wilde’s humorous writing and the actors’ comedic timing make this problem less of an issue.

Like in the original play, the strength of this opera is its dramatic conclusion: all is (mostly) forgiven, we learn the truth, and nothing too serious is promoted or criticized. We may have arrived laughing at the follies of the liars, but we left finding ourselves laughing at the earnest truth of it all. We realize the misfortune of getting what we wanted: trivial entertainment that is, well, trivial.