Barry runs Wilde with this potent operatic package


Audiences in London and Birmingham were exhilarated by Wilde’s unerring wit, and composer Gerald Barry’s wicked take on it

AS GERALD BARRY tells it, he was conflicted over the idea of writing an opera on Oscar Wilde’s “trivial comedy for serious people”, The Importance of Being Earnest. But composers, whether wise or foolhardy, have rarely shown themselves shy of taking on subjects that sage advisers might regard as being too hot to handle.

Witness the multitude of operas based on Shakespeare. Or Gounod’s Faust, Prokofiev’s War and Peace, Steve Reich’s Three Tales (on the destruction of the Hindenburg airship, the atomic tests at Bikini Atoll, and the cloning of Dolly the sheep), or Barry’s own almost word-for-word setting of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s play and film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.

Barry was cautioned about the wisdom of taking on the Wilde, but ploughed ahead anyway. We can be grateful that he did, even if he dispensed with much of the text (his task, he suggests, was like taking an X-ray to reveal the bones) and also took the liberty of giving both Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism creative streaks as composers. Barry’s Earnest gives these two characters an opportunity to perform their own extraordinary versions of Schiller’s Freude, schöner Götterfunken, the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Barry likes texts that can look after themselves, and he goes out of his way not to worry them with conventional expressive writing. Pared back, Wilde is still a very potent package, and Barry’s rapid-fire setting – uneven in movement, as if the words were littered with verbal trip-wires – finds all sorts of ways of confounding, avoiding or embellishing the obvious. But his approach also seeks to probe behind the veneer of the words, the orchestral writing showing agitation, conflict and violence that the words hardly hint at. Witness those operatic firsts, the prolonged smashing of dinner plates and the marching of jackboots by the percussionists, not to mention the use at one point of megaphones by Cecily and Gwendolen. The whole orchestra gets to whistle, stomp and shout, too.

The instrumental writing churns, cackles and jeers, at times almost as if providing a wry, running commentary on the action, in styles that range from fairground frivolity to the most crushing of modernist aggression, with a plethora of musical reference points along the way, the various treatments of Auld Lang Syne being the most unmissable. And, of course, there’s the fact that Lady Bracknell is cast as a bass, the famous “A handbag?” delivered as a violent retch.

Barry’s Earnest, which received its concert premiere from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra a year ago, got its first European performances at the Barbican in London and Symphony Hall in Birmingham last week, with Thomas Adès conducting the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. In Adès’ expert hands, the musical communication is so vivid that, with the benefit of surtitles, not a trick seemed to be missed.

Stylistically, Barry has been mellowing of late, and shows a new fondness for neo-classical gestures that he turns over again and again, as if their very repetition is something to be found comforting. The musical demands on the players, however, remain extreme, and the small orchestra, heavy on brass and light on strings, is worked to the bone. Barry trained as an organist, and he still treats orchestral musicians as if they can be turned on and off at will, used for as long as he likes in any part of their range, just as easily as an organ stop can be pulled. It’s tough on the players, and hugely exhilarating for listeners.

The organ-stop approach is applied to singers, too. Soprano Barbara Hannigan’s Cecily gambolled along in the top of her range with incredible insouciance, as if delighting in the sheer extravagance involved. Bass-baritone Joshua Bloom’s Algernon seemed unflappable, whatever the vocal demands or social quandaries he faced. Tenor Peter Tantsits’s Jack was, by contrast, light in tone and always flappable, the lightness matched by the object of his affections, mezzo soprano Katalin Károlyi’s Gwendolen.Contralto Hilary Summers’s Miss Prism had astonishing presence, as if her gloriously imposing performance might have had a hidden turbo-booster. Real contraltos, and Summers is certainly one, are a pleasure of a very particular kind. Alan Ewing’s bristling Lady Bracknell imposed too, so that the interrogation of Prism about the fate of the handbag became a real tour-de-force.

Barry has a reputation as a difficult composer. But the London and Birmingham audiences, just like the listeners in LA, seemed primarily to be entertained, both by Wilde’s unerring wit, and Barry’s wicked take on it. You can judge for yourself, when the London performance is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 this Saturday, and there’s talk of a production by the Opéra national de Lorraine in Nancy early next year.

* IN LONDON, I looked in at a rehearsal for the Royal Opera’s La bohème, directed by John Copley, designed by Julia Oman, and conducted by Semyon Bychkov. It would have featured Naas soprano Celine Byrne as Mimì had fate not cruelly intervened.

Opera rehearsals can be a kind of multi-lingual, organised chaos at the point where everything is coming together in the theatre, the staging finally linking up with the sound of a full orchestra in the actual venue. Details of the singers’ movements are still being fine-tuned while the music pours forth in all its glory from the pit. Singers suddenly fade from earshot when they decide momentarily to rest their voices. There are weird intrusions of all kinds – people who have nothing to do with the action walk obliviously on to the set, making notes on clipboards. A firm voice over the PA suddenly says: “You need to get up from the bed now.” And even at one point a voice comments, “You still can’t see her breasts,” about the nude model that Marcello is painting.

I got the opportunity to have a few words with Bychkov, who was clearly enjoying himself in Covent Garden. The production is 37 years old, but is one of the most satisfying he’s ever worked on. Why? Because it’s absolutely faithful to the specifics that Puccini wanted, and that are clearly in the music. The production, says Bychkov, “will never become outdated”. And he offers a provocative quotation about opera production, a quotation he likes so much and likes to give accurately, that he keeps a copy of it on his phone.

“There is scarcely an opera producer alive who has not taken it into his head at some time or other to stage Don Giovanni in a contemporary setting, whereas every intelligent person should be telling himself it is not this work which should be tailored to suit our times but we ourselves who must adapt to the time of Don Giovanni if we are to find ourselves in harmony with Mozart’s creation.”

It’s not a recent quotation, but one from the 19th century – 1878 to be exact. And the words are the sentiments of none other than Richard Wagner. Plus ça change.

The Royal Opera House’s La bohème will feature in a live video relay in this years Free BP Summer Big Screens at City Hall, Belfast at 7.30pm on May 17th.