The Importance of Being Earnest, Barbican, London

Lady Bracknell is a bass. The orchestra stamps, whispers and recites in unison. The “music” includes two bursts of serial plate-smashing, and the libretto has an uncontrollable habit of launching into German.

Such is Irish composer Gerald Barry’s take on Oscar Wilde’s classic text. Barry, whose last operatic offering in London, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (English National Opera, 2005), was a clunker, is such a madcap maverick that we knew this could never be a conventional setting. No sensible composer would dream of musicking a play that is so sui generis, and what transpires is a jokey mirror-distortion of it. Barry mangles words, chops up the natural syntax and deadens the speech – all deliberately, with the apparent aim of doing for opera what the conceptualists did for visual art.

The result is a hybrid, neither play nor opera. The music, which includes an ever-so-subtle adaptation of “Auld Lang Syne”, is not dramatic enough to qualify for the stage. Almost everything is reduced to pitched speech and strung on a line of chugging rhythms – vaguely reminiscent of Hindemith and Stravinsky in their neo-classical phase, but missing their variety or the musical/verbal innuendo Ravel incorporated into L’Heure espagnole.

Barry cuts two-thirds of the play, leaving in all references to cucumbers and crumpets while removing most of the period flavour. At 90 minutes his Importance of Being Earnest is a perfectly digestible piece of nonsense. Interest is sustained not so much by vocal artistry or pirouetting brass, as by the oblique comedy of Wilde’s surviving lines and Barry’s absurdist add-ons – a megaphone duet for two high sopranos (Barbara Hannigan and Katalin Károlyi), the vomiting sounds emitted by Lady B (Alan Ewing), the falsetto posturing of Algernon and Jack (Joshua Bloom and Peter Tantsits).

What made last Thursday’s UK premiere tolerable was the sense of belief emanating from everyone on stage – 24 members of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and a cast who acted as if they had slipped out of a stage production into this concert performance, corralled by Thomas Adès’s missionary zeal on the podium.

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