The Importance of Being Earnest - Barbican Hall, 26 April 2012
If I could pick just one ENO opera to revive, it would have to be Gerald Barry' s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant from 2005, an aural health hazard that taxed singers, orchestra and audience in equal measure and different ways. Detractors loathed the relentless volume and sonic density; fans identified a cogent sense of humour and a refreshing unwillingness to please wrapped up in a unique compositional voice.
All are present in The Importance of Being Earnest, though on a smaller and slightly mellower scale. The 23 piece BCMG ensemble is largely brass and percussion. When they're not going full blast, there's a lot of air in the music, often emphasised by a rhythmic texture that leaves the first beat of the bar empty.
For his libretto, Barry has sliced and diced Wilde's play down to its bare bones, keeping just enough words to preserve the narrative, but often skewing the sense: "neither of us is engaged to be married" becomes "neither of us is married" for example. Every line about food is retained; so is nearly everything about Algernon's imaginary friend Bunbury. He throws in Schiller's Ode an die Freude, recited by Lady Bracknell (played by a bass) and Miss Prism to underline their authoritarian credentials.
The balance is tipped towards the absurd. Everyone seems obsessed with cucumber sandwiches and 'Bunburying' - a word that here carries a far stronger innuendo than in a conventional theatre production. What is in the play a throwaway section about muffins becomes an extended verbal duel between Jack and Algernon to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, a recurring theme first heard on the piano at the very start.
Barry rejects the social posturing which garlands Wilde's exquisitely styled lines in the theatre. Instead he gets right down to the business of opera - exploration of the emotions. Lines are delivered in a rapidfire rush, or punctuated mid-word. The appalled Lady Bracknell delivers the celebrated 'handbag' line not with the expected plummy pomposity but a violent retching sound. As Cecily and Gwendolen debate which one of them is engaged to 'Ernest', their suppressed rage is manifested in a series of smashing plates.
This work is crying out for a staging, but we had to make do at the Barbican with a concert performance (stage directions as well as libretto appeared on the supertitles). Barbara Hannigan's manic, stratospheric Cecily was the pick of a fine bunch of singers that also included Hilary Summers as a dictatorial Miss Prism and Alan Ewing as the basso Lady Bracknell. Thomas Ades held together the excellent BCMG through some hairy moments ranging from serialist pastiche to ensemble chanting. If there's one way Barry hasn't changed over the years it's that he never makes a musician's life easy.