Recordings > Opera and Oratorio

BARRY: The Importance of Being Earnest

spacer Hannigan, Károlyi, Summers; Tantsits, Bloom, Bevan, Ewing; Birmingham 
Contemporary Ensemble, Adès. Texts. NMC D197

EarnestCD

Composer Gerald Barry is a deconstructionist, dismantling the elements of Oscar Wilde’s perfect comedy of manners and reassembling them on his own terms. The result is engineered cacophony, topped by impossibly angular vocal lines — all necessarily doubled in the orchestra — that are virtually unsingable and almost entirely incomprehensible. Even if the listener can parse specific words, any meaning, let alone subtext, is completely lost in Barry’s purposeful disregard of the natural rhythm of the text. Worse, there is no delight in the language. A Greek Chorus offers up Wilde’s aphorisms as lecturing asides, rather than the conversational thrusts and parries he intended them to be. Barry’s approach would find a better match in the work of Ionesco, whose dialogue is largely absurdist. But Wilde is about wit; it’s not about nonsense, and it’s not about nothing. It’s one thing to strip away operatic artifice to get to the heart of a dramatic situation, but rigid atonalism is no less confining than any other arbitrarily imposed set of musical rules. In this case, it codifies the characters into interchangeable robotic regurgitators of notes, in some cases, literally. Gwendolen and Cecily’s tea-party confrontation is intoned through megaphones while dishes are smashed in the background. Lady Bracknell’s famous expostulation “A handbag!” is vomited out — and the gag, if you will, is repeated. (Wilde knew better than to repeat a punch line.) 

The singers all deserve medals for committing to Barry’s insane melodies, especially mezzo-soprano Katalin Károlyi, who, despite Barry’s best intentions, makes some pretty sounds as Gwendolen. In keeping with the tradition of casting a man as Lady Bracknell, the role is sung by a bellowing bass (the gruff Alan Ewing). If he were the only male singer to catapult into falsetto, that might be a step toward characterization, but Jack and Algernon also frequently leap into the stratosphere. As it is, Ewing might as well be Lord Bracknell. Thomas Adès leads the Birmingham Contemporary Ensemble, which plays vividly. The score is certainly virtuoso, and there are some jolly stretches and some musical humor, including startlingly realistic instrumental depictions of mosquitos and wind, as well as an echo of the theme from Psycho in response to Algernon’s “Australia! I’d sooner die.” But it’s hard to know, ultimately, what all this exertion is in service of, except a parody of what the uninitiated may think of as “modern opera.” spacer 

JOANNE SYDNEY LESSNER

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