BARRY The Importance of Being Earnest
After the first night of Oscar Wilde’s play, in 1895, George Bernard Shaw complained that it had more of the inhumanity of farce than the nuanced characterisation of proper comedy. Since then, play-goers have relished Wilde’s fizzing wit and not regretted the absence of finer feelings. Gerald Barry magnifies the fizzing quality into a relentless high-wire act that has the audience relishing the stamina of the performers, here under the needle-sharp control of ringmaster-in-chief Thomas Adès. Laughter and applause – as when a large number of dinner plates (they must be white) are smashed – do not seriously disrupt a performance remarkable for its energy and accuracy, atmospherically recorded. The eight singers and actors, with the 21 instrumentalists of BCMG (who also have to shout and stamp), combine into a phenomenally well-integrated musical ensemble. Clearly a good time was being had by all.
Barry casts Lady Bracknell as a bass, yet his response to Wilde’s elegant Victorian formalities is not so much the ‘moustache on the Mona Lisa’ effect, more a ferocious intensification of features latent in the original text, much reduced but also supplemented in the composer’s own libretto. Wilde’s poised verbal fencing turns overtly violent, underlining the playwright’s subversive attitude to social niceties, and also his dislike of the German language: as Cecily says, ‘I feel quite plain after my German lesson’. Ever keen to give subtlety a miss, Barry inserts gabbled versions of Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ among a clutch of often brilliantly witty musical cannibalisations. The music is powered by manically automated recyclings of simple scalic and modal elements, fracturing the text in the process in ways which add considerably to the opera’s farcical profile. A DVD of a staging would give a more vivid impression of the virtuoso stylisation at work here but even a CD makes crystal-clear what a dedicated musical maverick can do with a treasured literary antique usually thought to be beyond parody.