The Importance of Being Earnest

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We review Gerald Barry's new opera

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Importance of Being EarnestHow can you improve on perfection? – or rather, The Importance of Being Earnest? In anyone else’s hands Wilde’s absurd plot, linguistic fireworks, and devastating one-liners would be drowned, dragged back and distorted by any form of musical setting. But Gerald Barry is a one-off. In his new opera, he explodes the play and releases the Fenian frenzy at its heart.

The music, for starters, is the very opposite of Wilde’s language. Brassy, raucous and syncopated, it hurls itself forward in a delirium of virtuosity. More brass than wind, more wind than strings, the ensemble is a devilish type of dance-band, with which Barry conjures Stravinskian naughtiness, military pomp, sleaze, swing, 12-tone high-jinks and – miracle of all miracles – some rather catchy melodies. As Jack and Algernon fight obliquely over the muffins, it’s the instrumentalists who tie themselves in musical knots. And the upper class passion for German is given a hilarious send-up in Barry’s lofty setting of the ‘Ode to Joy’.

He brings his own humour to the table, too, which never competes with Wilde’s deathless lines, but flies in from another planet: Lady Bracknell is played as a basso profondo (Alan Ewing, sadly, not in drag), the leading ladies spar icily via village fête-type megaphones; a pianist sits at the piano while a recording of a piano riffs on Auld Lang Syne, while extreme emotional reactions to the play’s revelations are delivered via cacophonous horns, ridiculous repeated cadences, a (literal) hammer blow or – the pièce de resistance – 40 china plates being shattered after every syllable of Cecily and Gwendolyn’s catfight. Some of the musical humour is plain slapstick: coloratura screeching, lots of contrabassoon and tuba, and the whole orchestra marching and whistling as Gwendolyn and Cecily waft across the lawn back to the house.

This was a second outing for Thomas Adès and the BCMG, who premiered it last year in Los Angeles. Adès makes the score dance, and his players were ablaze with brilliance, though sometimes their furious activity overwhelmed the singers, and one could see how much better it would be with the players in a pit. Coloratura Barbara Hannigan was very funny as Cecily, though we could have done with more cut-glass accents from both her and Hungarian soprano Katalin Károlyi, whose English was vague. Curly-haired Algernon (Joshua Bloom) and Jack (Peter Tantsits) were convincing as the two hapless ‘Earnests’, and Hilary Summers is an indelible Miss Prism.

This is a piece of inspired theatre, crying out for a stage: who will be first?