Friday, 27 April 2012

The Importance Of Being Earnest, Gerald Barry, BCMG, Ades

I often find that one can judge the impression of a particularly impressive concert, play or film by the language that critics use in their subsequent reviews (irrespective of the content of what they have to say). It's great to read good prose appraising a noteworthy performance, writers trying to do justice to the show with uncommonly well-tooled English.

Now this isn't to say that I found myself in the interval of last night's performance of Gerald Barry's The Importance Of Being Earnest holding high-falutin conversations about the opera in exotic vocabulary. Rather, and largely because of the boomy atrium of the Barbican centre, I found myself talking much faster than usual and at a consistent volume.

Before you imagine this is going to be a criticism veiled in a backhanded compliment, let me say that, irrespective of the quality of either piece and performance - and both piece and performance are tours de force - this is simply a handy example of just what frenetic fun Berry's operatic treatment of Wilde's most famous play turns out to be. The text has been tailor-fitted with an appropriate selection of 20th century modernist to avant-garde compositional techniques and buzzes with comedy, danger and tremendous energy as a result.

If I can continue this couturier's analogy for a moment (Wilde might have approved) it's the tailoring that's the thing. Barry hasn't simply decided on imposing a serial row or a neoclassically translucent version of Auld Lang Syne, like an off-the-peg musical robe. Neither is the music trying to ape the source author's wit with intermittent pastiche. The furious tempi, devilish demands on both the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and, moreover, on the singers are all of a part with the characters of the play and its subcutaneous but nonetheless uncomfortably close-to-the-bone social satire. I, like the rest of the audience, laughed a great deal and was never really sure whether I was laughing at a line of text or the hyper-awareness of the music complicit in it. I was reminded of the pompous, convoluted leave-taking towards the end of Act 2 of Der Rosenkavalier as Strauss' own hyper-romantic score spills over into expressionism as the characters struggle to conceal their impulse to fight behind bowing and scraping.

Like a moth drawn to a strobe light it was unsurprising to see Thomas Ades conducting this performance. The music is a relentless demand of precision and rhythmic dynamism. This means that the singing has little time to breathe in a classic bel canto fashion (although the clarity of neoclassicism is certainly to be heard in the harmony and orchestration). Indeed, many parts demand singing outside the range and temporary excursions into falsetto which, though camply entertaining, can seem a little odd. In this the Lady Bracknell of Alan Ewing (yes, a bass cast as Lady Bracknell) and Joshua Bloom's Algenon excelled. One might equally mention Hilary Summers' Miss Prism in this bracket for, though the gear changes were not as apparent in her remarkable contralto, the character demands on her range were pungently coloured. Cecily and Gwendolin were sung by Katalin Karolyi and Barbara Hannigan respectively, and though the former's phrases often started near her killer heels both managed the coloratura of oxygen-starved tessitura with real musicality. Peter Tantsits' danger-tenor John was an exemplar of all these styles and approaches, taking the the stage briskly and without fuss but still with a nonchalance that was immediately at odds with alarming music that he is required to sing - and which he really does sing.

As much a part of the opera are the orchestra, whose lines have character in themselves, not least in the prologue to Act 3 which fizzes with virtuosity. They are also required to shout and stamp... though that's not to detract from the foley-style boot percussion of the game-for-anything percussion section which includes a pair of wind machines a preposterously large hammer and, show-stealingly, the violent destruction of a couple of dozen plates.

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