Gerald Barry will certainly have enjoyed his 60th birthday present which Saturday’s performance of his new opera, a daring setting of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, brought him, two days after its UK premiere in the less amenable venue which is London’s Barbican.
Yet even the miraculous acoustic of Symphony Hall could not always cope with the cartwheeling, spitfire, manic articulation which Barry’s own truncation of Wilde’s text demands. The orchestra (Birmingham Contemporary Music Group here) for what is essentially a chamber opera is comparatively large, and the voices did not always cut through it.
But what voices they were, outstanding among them the pinpoint stratospheric accuracy of Barbara Hannigan’s slightly chavvy Cecily Cardew, Katalin Karolyi’s charmingly engaging Gwendolen Fairfax, and Alan Ewing’s gripping Lady Bracknell.
Yes, a bass Lady Bracknell, a recourse which largely works, turning the character into an androgynous symbol of all the social pretension Oscar Wilde loathed. Where it failed for me was Barry’s laddish response to the challenge of her most notorious line, resorting to having her puke out “A handbag?”, and later descending at one point into an Hitlerian rant. Not funny.
Barry inflicts some sadistic cruelties upon his singers, peppering their vocal lines with gratuitous ‘falsetto’ fleckings, or taking them down into the depths of self-caricaturing (Hilary Summer’s Miss Prism a particular victim here).
And all the time they are working their vocal cords off, while we rely upon the surtitles to tell us what they are actually communicating. The surtitles sometimes stop (glitched or planned?), and sometimes the singers speak their lines (did the composer tire at such points, or was this for emphasis?).
Orchestrally, Barry’s score is fascinating, fizzingly through-composed, winkingly allusive at times (including Janacek and Wagner, and the first two acts ending with references to the “Auld Lang Syne” with which the opera, in Barry’s own car-crashing arrangement, begins), and rich in imaginative touches, such as a duet for wind-machines, a seemingly endlessly prolonged brass trill, and two elegantly choreographed plate-smashing cameos.
Thomas Ades conducted with generous commitment, enthusiastically reciprocated by all concerned onstage, and most of a pleasingly sizeable audience.