Toronto Operetta Theatre took a big leap of faith in 2008 by mounting the world premiere of the Canadian operetta, EARNEST, The Importance of Being. Here’s a quote from my 2008 review for Classical 96 FM.
“A new Canadian music work is a significant event, and the charming chamber operetta EARNEST, The Importance of Being, inspired by Oscar Wilde’s play, should have a shelf life. Composed by Victor Davies with a libretto by Eugene Benson, the operetta is filled with hummable melodies and clever lyrics.“
With this 2015 revival, I still feel the same, only more so. From the very first notes of the overture, one knows that the evening will be filled with sparkling music. Gorgeous tunes pour out of the orchestra. Tangos and waltzes fill the air with gaiety, and delightful solos, duets and ensembles abound, not to mention inside jokes referencing Gilbert and Sullivan – so here’s my question. Why haven’t Stratford and/or Shaw put this delightful work into their seasons instead of mounting the play for the gazillionth time? All the dialogue comes from Wilde – the best lines, in fact (“I hear that her hair has turned quite gold from grief”) – and librettist Benson has carried Wilde’s wit into the lyrics…or I think he has, because to be utterly truthful, for the most part, the singers’ diction this time around is mush, with the women being the worst offenders. TOT is the same outfit as VOICEBOX Opera in Concert which has surtitles capability. Ergo, use the projector for the English lyrics in the operettas, and put us out of our misery. Nonetheless, despite words being missed, Larry Beckwith’s conducting is star quality, romantic or vibrant by turn. He really brought the lovely score to life. You can hear the fun in the music.
I didn’t get a chance in the 2008 review to mention a very clever musical joke in the operetta, so I’m now making up for lost time. Both Gwendolen and Cecily rhapsodize about the name Earnest in lovely coloratura runs. When, however, they try to rhapsodize about the names Jack and Algernon respectively, their vocalizing goes sour. It is very, very funny, and because it is repeated several times, the audience begins laughing in expectation as soon as the singing of the names begins.
Alas, the cast doesn’t really have the classical acting chops for pacing and timing, and a lot of Wilde’s dialogue is underplayed, but no one on stage is ever stiff. They all make a stab at character and director Guillermo Silva-Marin has added nice touches of realism, for example, the way in which Algernon and Jack lounge around. As always, Silva-Marin’s stage décor, is very effective.
If the acting is just serviceable, the singing is quite accomplished. The best voice with the best diction comes from baritone Cameron McPhail (John Worthing). As soon as he started to sing, out came a rich, rolling, commanding sound that made one take notice. Thomas Macleay (Algernon Moncrieff) has a pleasant light lyric tenor that is most suitable for his flighty character. Reliable character tenor Gregory Finney (Rev. Canon Chasuble) always gives a good performance in supporting roles. Manservants Sean Curran (Lane) and Diego Catatá (Merryman) are the competent low voices needed to fill in on ensembles.
On the distaff side, Charlotte Knight (Cecily) is a formidable coloratura soprano. Davies’ music has her chirping all up and down the scale which she pulls of with panache. There has to be a Queen of the Night in her future with her precision placement and easy top. Mezzo-soprano Michelle Garlogh (Gwendolen) has a very distinctive voice because vibrato is a dominant feature. A constant vibrato can be a distraction for audiences who prefer a clearer sound. It’s a matter of taste, but, unfortunately, not to mine. Mezzo-soprano Jean Stilwell (Lady Bracknell) has one of the great voices of her fach in Canada, rich, creamy and lush. Her acting performance, however, is a disappointment. This singer who has sizzled as Carmen and Magdalena is just too flat and bland as the fearsome Lady Bracknell. Sadly. she has not transfered over her usual charisma to this role. Mezzo-soprano Rosalind McArthur (Miss Prism) is one of TOT’s staples, and she, like Finney, never gives a bad performance.
In conclusion, I’d be happy to hear EARNEST, The Importance of Being in another seven years, if not sooner. The operetta is a keeper, and deserves to be off the shelf.
(Toronto Operetta Theatre, EARNEST, The Importance of Being, Jane Mallett Theatre, Apr. 29 to May 3, 2015.)