The Importance of Being Earnest, Barbican Hall | Opera reviews, news & interviews
The Importance of Being Earnest, Barbican Hall
A new comic masterpiece from Gerald Barry
Gerald Barry's new operatic adaptation of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest delivers a number of firsts. The first opera score to contain an ostinato for smashed plates. The first orchestra to include a part for pistols and wellington boots. The first opera (that I know of) to offer the role of an aging mother to a male bass. And the first opera I've been to where I've cried with laughter.
Granted: on paper it all sounds a bit Chuckle Brothers. Smashing plates, wellies, travesty roles aren't automatically funny at all. But like all the best jokes, these are not jokes. Barry doesn't resort to the plate-smashing etc in order in the first place to make us laugh. He resorts to them in order to get to the truth. And the truth is that the aural metaphor best suited to the famous catfight between the prim belles Gwendolen (the dead pan Katalin Karolyi) and Cecily (the dazzling Barbara Hannigan) in which they find out (or rather, fear they've found out) that they're both betrothed to the same man is undoubtedly the syncopated smashing of plates. This is the sound that gets quickest to the psychological nub of the matter. And Barry follows the action through to the very end of the girls' two-way. Deadpan. Convinced of its own seriousness.
Different sections of the orchestra burst out at us like spitting pimples
Barry's work also improves Wilde's play. A grand claim, possibly, considering many think Wilde's Earnest to be one of the most perfect plays ever written. But for those, like me, who are allergic to Wilde's wit, this is the perfect antidote to and improvement on the urtext. The vocal music (full of the usual Barry acrobatics) destroys the pert one-liners. It tears up the neat little lawns of wit that Wilde has anally manicured. And in its place Barry lays down a proper comedy: one that is wild (and no longer Wilde), modern, genuinely funny and true.
And that last point is the most important. Truth, honesty, upfrontness, earnestness is famously the thing that is missing in Wilde's Earnest. This is what Barry's music fills in. The psychological truth. And it's not pleasant listening. The small chamber orchestra - the superb Birmingham Contemporary Music Group under the energetic watch of Thomas Adès - became a heaving, grunting mass of repressed rage at this Barbican European premiere. Different sections burst out at us like spitting pimples. The fortissimo flutter-tonguing horns for the entry of Hannigan's Cecily was one of many memorable orchestral eruptions.
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