Algernon Ernest? What brings you up to town?
Jack Pleasure! Eating Algy?
Algernon Slight refreshment at five o’clock.
Jack Cups? Cucumber sandwiches? Who is coming?
Algernon Aunt Augusta and Gwendolen.
Jack I love Gwendolen. I want to marry her!
Algernon If I ever marry, I’ll try to forget it.
In Gerald Barry’s hands, Jack and Algernon are primarily creatures of pleasure—pleasure which is most often achieved through eating. Adorning this CD release is a photo from the Opéra national de Lorraine’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by Sam Brown, which was aptly set in and around an oversized three-tier cake stand. What bearing this obsession with food has on Oscar Wilde’s play, drastically reduced in size here but with most of the references to food left intact, is difficult to say—perhaps, to quote Lady Bracknell, it is a sign of triviality. Certainly the opera is not the refined, nouvelle cuisine-style delicacy one expects from contemporary opera. But it’s delicious all the same.
The Importance of Being Earnest reduced its premiere audience in Los Angeles to hysterical giggles in 2011, and it has since been delighting listeners across Europe, with staged productions from Lorraine, the Royal Opera House, and Northern Ireland Opera. NMC’s CD release is the piece’s first recording, and is taken from the European concert premiere given at the Barbican, London, in April 2012. The occasional bursts of laughter that the engineers were evidently unable to remove only enhance the recording’s manic ambiance.
The opera’s humor is pervasive, both on the surface and buried in the structure. Consider the above extract from the first scene, with its dialog that reads like it could have been generated by a late ’90s-era computer. Barry adapted the text himself, and you can see the stitches. Some reduction was a necessity to keep the opera’s length down, doubtless, but the cuts are also eccentric: perhaps (though only perhaps) because the original’s crystalline structure was too delicate to recast, no characters or subplots are excised. Instead, individual lines are reduced by the odd word or clause, and contextualizing passages are ruthlessly removed. Sometimes Barry even rewrites lines for maximum efficiency, in an unpoetic, perfunctory style. Many of Wilde’s witticisms are left in, but stripped of context they come across as pedantic and weird. Hence, Algernon’s brief discourse on proposing and marriage is reduced to its almost nonsensical conclusion, “If I ever marry, I’ll try to forget it.” Jack’s jocular questioning of Algernon’s spread for afternoon tea—originally “Hallo! Why all these cups? Why cucumber sandwiches? Why such reckless extravagance in one so young? Who is coming to tea?”—becomes paranoid and aggressive: “Cups? Cucumber sandwiches? Who is coming?” And instead of declaring “I am in love with Gwendolen. I have come up to town expressly to propose to her,” Jack abruptly barks, “I love Gwendolen. I want to marry her!” The impression left is that Barry has confronted all the possible ways in which he might have adapted the text, and chosen all the funniest ones, à la carte.
The score is similarly chaotic. Algernon and Jack’s conversation is set to music aping the serialist style of Arnold Schoenberg and his Second Viennese School followers: featuring wide, difficult melodic intervals, atonal but given a sense of momentum thanks to its conventional rhythmic cast. The purpose of this reference to one of music history’s least popular moments is unclear: is Barry mocking the frivolity of the conversation with deliberately po-faced music? Does the somehow unfriendly musical style hint at the crumbling social conventions of turn-of-the-century British society? Does the style present Barry with nothing more than an excuse to make the singers jump all over the place and sing in falsetto? It is probably none of these. The decision is obscure.
Yet not every choice he makes is a non sequitur, as such. At one point, out of the blue, the orchestra takes up a charming, French-style military song for a short while, delaying the dramatic action and contributing little. But it follows directly on from a comment by Lady Bracknell regarding “the worst excesses of the French Revolution.” If anything, this is surely a sequitur. It just happens to be completely non-pertinent in terms of plot. Equally unnecessary, one must concede, are Barry’s use of jackboots in the percussion section, the score’s huge overemphasis on the word “Explosion!”, and the almost obscenely long trill that announces Cecily’s first entrance, shared between two French horns and underpinned, for some reason, by the violas. Like the score’s obsession with “Auld Lang Syne,” which most of the characters seem to sing a part of at some point, these things do not aid the opera’s storytelling.
But then, the story is familiar enough as it is. And it’s funny, too: Barry knows this, and he seldom denies us the opportunity to laugh at the play’s own jokes—in fact, the loudest bursts of laughter coming from the auditorium follow some of Wilde’s best lines. He is cruel to Wilde the hallowed aphorist, yes—the line, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple,” is intoned by a pre-recorded choir in dogged mock-solemnity—but plenty of the original jokes make the cut and shine through the score. Miss Prism’s perplexing judgement that a textbook chapter on the fall of the Rupee is “somewhat too sensational” is set simply and draws one of the biggest laughs. And elsewhere, Barry’s own affection for the play leads to him to amplify it rather than subvert it: a few times, lines are declaimed rhythmically instead of sung, allowing for greater focus on the text.
What are we laughing at, then? The chiselled precision of Wilde’s play, or the roughly scissored wildness of Barry’s opera? Despite the drastically divergent aesthetics, the answer is both: Barry is canny enough never to drown out the original—rather, the opera provides a remarkably effective means of experiencing the play afresh, both justifying its canonical status and reinventing it for a contemporary audience. It’s this bizarre, perhaps unexpected sensitivity that is the primary proof that Barry is not in fact a precocious though impish seven-year-old, but rather a highly talented composer.
The recording does full justice to the score, though flicking through the libretto is a poor substitute for watching the action unfold live, even if the stage directions themselves are amusingly phrased (“Lady Bracknell sings her own setting of ‘Freude, schöner, Götterfunken’,” they declare at one point; later there is a version by Miss Prism. Beethoven’s version is not heard). But in the absence of a filmed version, or better yet a conveniently located live production, there is much to enjoy here. The cast is strong, with tenor Peter Tantsits and baritone Joshua Bloom laddishly sparring through the parts of Jack and Algernon. Mezzo-soprano Katalin Károlyi is an endearing Gwendolen whose imperfect English diction fittingly adds yet another amusing layer of chaos to the proceedings. Barbara Hannigan, who was also the soprano star of Barry’s monodrama La Plus Forte (based on a Strindberg play), is an unbeatable Cecily. Not only does she perform the supremely taxing, very high part with aplomb; she also delivers her spoken lines with the timing of a talented comic actor. Hilary Summers, a deep contralto, is a perfect, prim Miss Prism, the governess whose vocal line is oddly punctuated by garish broken chords for vibraphone and sudden silences. And special mention must of course go to Lady Bracknell—who is portrayed by Alan Ewing, a bass. The gender switch works so well that you barely notice it after the first scene, and Ewing’s booming, stern strains are the very essence of Lady Bracknell’s superfluous authoritarianism. The score, not an easy one, is dispatched expertly by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, with Thomas Adès conducting.
Adès, who as a composer is one of contemporary classical music’s leading lights, is especially fond of Barry’s work and has previously conducted many of his pieces. The younger composer’s meticulous, urbane style is perhaps an unlikely complement to Barry’s. But who wouldn’t find inspiration in this strange music? Adès’ works often betray an active engagement with classical music’s lustrous past, whether in the Schubertian, sonata form Piano Quintet or his opera The Tempest, a catalog of almost-allusions to opera from centuries gone by. He involves himself in that great tradition—it’s hard not to. But Barry, by contrast, demonstrates an exceptional lack of anxiety concerning his relationship to the past. There are few to no recognizable musical forms in Barry’s music, and any references to past works are surreal and amusing rather than paranoid and ponderous. It’s the same with his relationship with Wilde, surely one of the most intimidating predecessors for any contemporary Irish artist, not least an Irish humorist: Barry has a strikingly easy manner sitting alongside him, content to add his own ideas while letting Wilde’s stay there too. It’s an artistic attitude rare for its warm-heartedness, and it’s hard not to be inspired by it.
There is always the danger of over-intellectualizing things. A brilliantly forthright interviewee, Barry has explained one of Earnest’s most headline-worthy moments thus: “for the famous confrontation between Gwendolen and Cecily I asked myself ‘What is an expression of anger?’ and I thought ‘breaking things’—so had Gwendolen break 50 dinner plates to a precise rhythm.” Philosophizing about all those smashed plates (onstage crockery provided by Red Rob Catering Supplies, Birmingham) would miss the point, undermining the score’s spontaneity and rendering it less funny than seeing and hearing it happen. Writing and thinking about Barry’s music—and especially, doing either of these things seriously—can only get you so far. This is music with an inexplicable fluency all of its own, that can only be poorly represented in words. And in the chaos of the quirky adaptation and the madcap musical invention, it’s this point more than any other that tethers Earnest to operatic history.
“I had some crumpets with Lady Harbury,” Lady Bracknell declares at one point, before adding, eyebrows raised, “who seems to be living entirely for pleasure now.” Like Jack and Algernon, Gerald Barry does much the same, creating works that are as pleasurable as possible both for himself and for his audience. Let us not be Lady Bracknells, turning our noses up at the idea of unalloyed pleasure. What a pleasure it is, after all, to have a serious composer—a serious opera composer, even—with such priorities. “Comic opera” is usually something of a disappointment if you take the term literally—after all, the genre technically includes both Carmen and Manon, two operas which end most grimly. Earnestness, you might say, has never been opera’s weak point. Barry, though, manages both to celebrate this and, riotously, to send it up.
Paul Kilbey is a writer on music and culture based in London. He works at the Royal Opera House and has written for publications including Tempo.