Huw Smith, a regular reader of Show Me Something Interesting, went to see Gerald Barry's new opera, The Importance of Being Earnest, at the Barbican, and kindly penned a review for the blog. So, without further ado, here are his musings.
The Importance of Being Ernest - the opera by Gerald Barry
Of all the plays to choose! How do you make the dialogue count, convey the verbal sparring, and retain the sparkling wit…how? You DON’T!
This isn’t entirely true, but Barry shreds, and I mean shreds the text. How much is discarded…two thirds? Well that’s pretty standard for an adaptation and no bad thing if you’re writing an opera. And in the end isn’t it the music that counts? Isn’t it?
The text is ravaged, cut to pieces, and reduced to its brutal essentials. Barry puts the wild in Wilde or perhaps reveals the wild in Wilde and his well made play, that is if you could decipher the sung text. Yes, there were surtitles but having arrived at the hall without the correct glasses, I gave up attempting to read them and concluded it was far more fun without them. The words were there - (sung very fast, very slow, words dissected, phrases sung across the natural rhythms) - but once you surrendered to the sound and simply accepted what little meaning you could catch, you relaxed, sighed, and enjoyed the ride (and when was the last time you could say that of a contemporary opera?).
Fun? Did I say ‘fun’? A contemporary opera that’s ‘fun’? Well yes astounding though it may seem, it’s an absolute hoot both funny and exhilarating and without conceit though somehow lavished with it. So, what is it that makes Barry’s Importance… something to be revisited? Well for a start its sheer energy and exuberance and scatter-gun approach – there’s little time to grow bored with one thing as along comes the next and the next.
Did I say scatter-gun?
A highlight was the verbal exchange between Gwendolen and Cecily; an exchange conducted by megaphones, which intensified via scoring for how many smashed dinner plates?(48?), (in strict time), to scoring for jackboots and duel by pistols. Perhaps you had to be there.
I leant forward in my seat.
I rarely lean forward and only when the entertainment reaches out and sucks me in. I was sucked in and totally, completely, irrevocably, won over by Mr. Barry. I must admit that I’d admired his Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, but this, this was altogether a far more even-flavoured soup; and nothing less than an avant-garde-ist soup at that of ‘twenties London, Paris, Berlin and Moscow …and probably of Buenos Aires too thrown in for good measure. Barry mentions the fake surrealism he uses at the start but frankly it’s a kitchen sink assemblage of every musical "ism"of the twentieth-century you’ve ever heard and probably some you haven’t with a little G. & S. pattering for good measure. I loved it.
Special mention to Thomas Ades who’s conducting was a masterclass in controlled intensity; it kept drawing me from the rest of the performance but then there were so many things to savour – the opera needs to be experienced more than once.
The different parts of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (three cheers for smaller orchestras) also seemed to revel in having something challenging to work with as did the singers who were to a man equally committed and I believe won over by the writing, fiendish though it must have been at times. In particular Peter Tantsits’ barely contained punk-ish mania and the stratospheric zapping by Barbara Hannigan.
Barry’s subversive cross-cutting decimation of the text became an added orchestral textural flourish - can I be championing this mashing syncopation? Oh yes I can. Barry’s Importance… simply uses Wilde’s sublime Importance… to create a reassuringly old fashioned musical revolution of an entertainment. There was nothing new here but how refreshing the result. I left with a smile on my face and not the fixed one I expected to be wearing as I exited the Barbican Hall.
Too late now to hear it in the concert hall. See if you can catch it on iPlayer, Radio 3, and write to ENO demanding that it be given a run sooner rather than later.
So, that was Huw's take on the opera. Take a look at the Barbican brochure, and have a listen to Stephen Fry, Fiona Shaw, Thomas Adès and Gerald Barry discussing the work in the video below (thank you to the Barbican for uploading it!) if his review has sparked your interest.