The Importance of Being Earnest / Odyssey Opera

by Ed Tapper

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday March 18, 2017

Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde  

One of most fascinating and underappreciated composers of the 20th century, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote in a wide variety of musical genres. He is best known today for his guitar music, a medium he explored after meeting virtuoso Andres Segovia. He won much acclaim in his native Italy, however, being of Jewish heritage, he began to be harassed by the fascist regime in the years preceding WW II. Sponsored by legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini, Castelnuovo-Tedesco immigrated to the US in 1939.

Soon he found himself in Hollywood, and over the course of a long, successful career there, wrote musical scores for hundreds of films. In the delightful 1949 comedy "Everybody Does It," he composed a kitschy, faux opera "L'amore di Fatima," supposedly to be sung by the film's stars, Paul Douglas and Linda Darnell. Satirizing many pompous, operatic conventions, the music demonstrated them composer's keen sense of humor as well as his total command of the vocal idiom. In fact, by that time, he had already composed several vocal and choral works, as well as two complete operas. Sadly, his theatre works are seldom performed today.

Boston's groundbreaking company, Odyssey Opera, has assembled a 2017 season consisting of three unusual operas inspired by Oscar Wilde. "Wilde Opera Nights" opened this weekend at the Boston Center for the Arts with two performances of Castelnuovo-Tedesco's last operatic effort, "The Importance of Being Earnest." Inspired by Wilde's witty romantic comedy, the opera was completed in 1961. Since then, it has fallen into relative obscurity. Odyssey's charming, well-sung production made a strong case for this delightful rarity.

"The Importance of Being Earnest" is a chamber opera, scored for a small group of solo singers, two pianos and percussion. Nonetheless it is a full, three-act work, running about two hours in length. The composer's own libretto maintains much of the original dialogue, and all of the choice lines from Wilde's irresistible comedy. The music is tonal, and in a Post-Romantic vein. The opera is a perfect example of quotation music, meaning that famous themes by other Classical composers are employed as compositional elements throughout. Castelnuovo-Tedesco uses familiar melodies from operas, as well as symphonic, instrumental and vocal works by composers ranging from Bach to Rimsky-Korsakov. Naturally, Verdi and Wagner are heavily quoted. The style at first seemed episodic; yet, by the second act, in particular the hilarious scene between Cecily and Gwendolen, the concept proved most enjoyable. Aficionados in the audience got all the musical references, and seemed to enjoy identifying the plethora of famous tunes from the classical repertoire.

Odyssey Opera conductor Gil Rose led a splendid reading of the score. In addition to conducting, he supervised the stage direction, which was natural, fluid and unselfconscious. The wonderful sets and costumes were appropriate to the period, and, by today's standards, were quite lavish. What a joy to see one operatic production in which the time period had not been updated, and not one utilizing a metal cube as a set or cut-rate costumes from Goodwill.

All the singers selected for the leads were ideal choices. Although the opera was sung in English, special attention had obviously been paid to diction, as the sung words were readily audible; and, if those lines are by Wilde, one certainly wants to hear them. In addition to their excellent overall singing, the cast members were deft comedians, bringing out all of Wilde's subtle nuances. Soprano Claudia Waite played to the hilt the scene-stealing role of Lady Bracknell.

Maintaining its commitment to producing rarely-heard operas, Odyssey has eschewed Strauss' "Salome," the most famous opera based on a work by the English playwright, and goes Wilde again in April with Zemlinsky's "Der Zwerg," based on a short story. In June, Odyssey's season concludes with Gilbert & Sullivan's lesser known masterpiece, "Patience." Reputedly, some of the operetta's characters were loosely based on Wilde, and other aesthetes in his literary circle. Hopefully these two offerings will prove as entertaining as "The Importance of Being Earnest,"

"The Importance of Being Earnest" will be performed on Saturday, March 18 at 8pm; at the The Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA. For tickets and information call 617.826.1626 or visit the Odyssey Opera website.

Watch this preview of the production: