The Importance of Being Earnest
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group at the Barbican, April 26
For his previous opera, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (premiered at English National Opera in 2005), Gerald Barry set every single word of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s original screenplay. The result was delirious, frenzied and, by and large, uncommunicative. For his new opera (first seen in Los Angeles in April 2011), Barry turned again to a pre-existing text, but decided to tailor Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest to his very particular musical requirements.
Even trimmed by two-thirds, however, Wilde’s play remains full of words; but then wordiness is not a problem that Barry acknowledges. For him, opera is not a means to explore social relationships, political situations or inner lives. What interests him is our collective folly, and his operas give voice to a kind of exquisite madness. So it proved with this concert performance, the work’s first UK performance. The first music we heard was an offstage recording of Barry himself at the piano, thumping out an almost unrecognizable Auld Lang Syne. It sounded like a petulant child forced to practise against its will. In fact the whole opera had something tantrum-like about it, like an operaphobe’s resentful caricature.
Throughout, words came too fast or too slow to have meaning, and in any case Barry subverted sense by breaking random words in half and inserting a silent caesura (‘bro—ther’, ‘nov—el’, ‘unex—pected’), or by having vocal lines so high or so low that comprehension was at best approximate. Occasional passages were spoken or shouted, but that hardly helped. Barry inserted musical references—to Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, to Schoenberg—as a sort of word to the wise, but most of the laughs came in response, not to the musical elements, but to the surtitles; you just cannot make Wilde funnier than he already is. Even so, some of Barry’s excesses raised a smile: an argument between Cecily and Gwendolen, for instance, was conducted through loud-hailers while a percussionist smashed dinner plates (the catering supplier duly credited in the programme).
And yet there was an uninhibited exuberance to Barry’s music that was matched by the sheer energy required to deliver it. Barry could not have asked for a more committed performance. The conductor Thomas Adès clearly sees Barry as a kindred spirit and communicated his strenuous enthusiasm to the 21 players. The orchestra—the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group—was stripped back to string quartet, double bass, hyperactive percussion and a 12-strong wind band of abrasive fruitiness. The results sounded terrifyingly like a musical box wound up past the point of destruction.
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