WORKS: The Importance of Being Earnest
PERFORMER: Barbara Hannigan, Katalin Károlyi, Hilary Summers, Peter Tantsits, Alan Ewing, Joshua Bloom, Benjamin Bevan, Joshua Hart; Birmingham Contemporary Music Group/ Thomas Adès
CATALOGUE NO: NMC D 197
Surely this is not only the best operatic treatment of Oscar Wilde since Strauss’s Salome, but also one of the few absolutely essential operas of the last 20 years. I thought so at its UK stage premiere in the Royal Opera’s Linbury Theatre, and this recording of the Barbican performance which preceded it confirms that impression. Gerald Barry’s acerbic, brass-and-wind dominated Earnest brings out the violence behind the epigrams – not as a subtext but as screaming, explicit expressionism, fully backed up by score injunctions. It’s hilarious, but nervy: one of the great operatic scenes is the confrontation of perceived rivals Gwendolen and Cecily as they megaphonically speak-sing exchanges to the accompaniment of 40 smashed plates, wind-machine, telephone and Mahler-Berg hammerstroke.
Are there tunes? A few, chiefly ‘Auld Lang Syne’, introduced in Barry’s pre-recorded piano thrash; but, more important, there are great ideas that grab you, like the Straussian chords for Gwendolen’s horror at the name ‘Algernon’, and the introductory music to Act III.
This performance features at least three ideal incarnations: Barbara Hannigan’s cut-glass Cecily, Peter Tantsits’s spot-on Jack and Hilary Summers’s true-contralto Miss Prism, who hits every note asked of her. A little more approximate are Alan Ewing’s Lady Bracknell – a bass Barry envisaged as a suited gent to avoid ‘camp decoration’ – and Katalin Károlyi’s Gwendolen (though Barry’s word-setting is deliberately perverse, it needs a native English speaker). The BCMG brass and wind are clear and virtuosic under Thomas Adès.