Gerald Barry's last full-length opera, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, was based upon a screenplay. His latest, first performed last year in Los Angeles and brought to Europe for concert performances with Thomas Adès conducting Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, is based on one of the most iconic texts in English. It doesn't just sidestep the question of what's gained by turning Wilde's play into an opera – it tramples it underfoot.
Barry may have cut the text of Wilde's "trivial comedy for serious people" by two-thirds, but he still left himself with a very wordy libretto. Much of that is delivered at machine-gun speed, in the kind of vocal setting that is Barry's 21st-century equivalent of a comic-opera patter song, which makes it all but indecipherable. At the Barbican, surtitles supplied what the ear could not catch (as well as many of the stage directions), but it did mean that the humour came much more from reading than from listening; Wilde's wit was transmitted exactly as it would have been by reading the play.
Barry's music does contain its quota of hilarious moments, however. Having Lady Bracknell played by a bass (Alan Ewing) is a good start; and the way s/he delivers the famous handbag line, almost reduced to speechless incoherence, is beautifully judged.
Both Lady Bracknell and Hilary Summers' Miss Prism deliver high-speed versions of Beethoven's Ode to Joy, while Auld Lang Syne is regularly referenced. When Barbara Hannigan's Cecily and Katalin Károlyi's Gwendolen argue over tea and muffins about which of them is engaged to Ernest, and to which one – John Worthing (Peter Tantsits) or Algernon Moncrieff (Joshua Bloom) – they communicate through megaphones, accompanied by one of the orchestra's percussionists solemnly smashing a series of dinner plates.
Mostly, though, Barry's ensemble-writing forges its own path independent of what the singers are doing. It's like a startling series of musical machines, brassy riffs and wild passages that punctuate and criss-cross the vocal lines. It's all ferociously difficult to sing and play, but the performance under Adès seemed staggeringly good. Yet the core problem remains: the disjunction between the music and its subject matter is deliberate, and the effect uncertain. Many years ago, Barry wrote a piece called Things That Gain By Being Painted. One wonders what Wilde's play gains by being painted in music.
* Broadcast on Radio 3 on Saturday 19 May at 8pm.
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