On Thursday night, under the baton of Tom Adčs and in front of a full house, the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and a vocal cast gave the UK premiere of Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest at the Barbican Hall. Barry's operas to date of course have not been short of either praise or controversy. But now with Earnest, which is his fourth opera, Barry has composed what is one of the best new operas in recent memory – a work that will endure and which, with any luck, will see a full staging in the near future.
There may be some who, on hearing that the new opera by Gerald Barry is an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's landmark comic play, would give it a wide berth. Barry's music can be notoriously spiky and unpredictable; Wilde's text on the other hand is famously witty and elegant. Moreover, overbrimming with memorable lines, the text of Earnest is sacrosanct. How, then, is this opera not on dangerous ground? But good art is all about danger, and is all about taking risks, and any trepidation on the part of the audience turns out to be unwarranted.
When I interviewed him about the opera Barry described its musical content as all-embracing, and the opera as being his 'most straightforward in terms of musical language and vocal writing.' It definitely feels like an opera that most will find musically captivating, whether opera-lovers or not. This is mainly due to the neat fit of the music with the text, the two being intertwined like lovers. Although always respectful to his material, Barry at the same time uses the text as fodder for his own artistic vision, which blooms at the encounter.
In a way we mightn't expect, Wilde's text, famous and oft-quoted as it is, proves entirely apt for Barry. Because Barry is a match to it (in a way you could imagine a lesser composer wouldn't be), and probably too because of the common Irishness, Wilde's comic touch is for Barry an artistic conduit.
Earnest barrels along with steady laughs. The humour comes thick, fast and many-hued: slap-stick belly-laughs, in the silliness of Lady Bracknel being cast as a bass ( Alan Ewing); visual humour, in a percussionist wielding a giant funfair hammer; cheap guffaws, in the ridiculous abrupt shifts in vocal register the singers have to negotiate; sitcom-esque small-talk, in the males leads ( Peter Tantsits) having a concerned duet about the appropriate time for eating muffins; and absurdity, in the pseudo-melodramatic musical motto the band launch into at one point upon every mention of Algernon's name.
The BCMG's performance was razor-sharp and crystal lucid in a fiendishly difficult, brass-heavy score, and will be repeated this weekend in Birmingham. Having previously described Barry as his favourite living composer, Adčs showed great care for Barry's artistic vision. That dedication reaped dividends on the night, as the audience were shown a glimpse, as if behind a curtain, of something out of the ordinary.
A standout scene was the catty duet of Gwendolen ( Katalin Károlyi) and Cecily ( Barbara Hannigan). Already well-reported in the advance publicity, it features the ladies chatting curtly to each other through loudspeakers. Its climax sees a percussionist valiantly smashing plates in time to a long sentence of Gwendolen's, each plate-smash punctuating a gap in her speech. As well as this delicacy, the percussionist for good measure fires a few gunshots from an air gun, slams the aforementioned carnival-hammer into the ground of the stage, and along with another percussionist whacks two pairs of big wellington boots into the ground, which they wear on their arms like long black gloves.
If this sounds distasteful, like cheap effects in place of substance, it isn't. It's well judged within the pacing of the opera and is accepted as natural enough, given the overall mood and circumstances. Barry's sense for operatic entertainment is sure, and the audience was in fits laughing here as at many other points. Musically the opera ranges from the sublime to the scintillating. Act 3 opens with a beautiful and wistful Dorian-mode melody on strings, occasionally interupted by a barrage on other instruments; and the opera ends, following the famous closing line, 'I've finally realised, for the first time in my life, the vital importance of being earnest,' with the raised eyebrow of a huge orchestral tutti tritone.
The singers shone respectively and as an ensemble. Joshua Bloom was a suave and arrogant Algernon, throwing humerous facial expressions at the audience when the vocal melody suddenly careered at an unnatural angle. Peter Tantsits was excitable and (yes) earnest as Jack Worthing. Alan Ewing threw his weight around as the redoubtable Lady Bracknell, his scattershot rendition of 'Freude, schöner Götterfunken' being an early highlight. Hilary Summers was understated and prim as Miss Prism. Katalin Károlyi was feisty and full-voiced as Gwendolen. And Barbara Hannigan gave us a beautiful, clarion Cecily, commanding the stage in opulent costume.
When it was put to him recently, Barry spurned the suggestion, occasionally made, that opera is an anachronistic artform. Opera's contemporary power and imaginative potential was on ample display here: The Importance of Being Earnest is art that's up-to-date.
By Liam Cagney
Photo Credits: Mark Allan