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In Earnest

April 08, 2011

Composer Gerald Barry Photo: Betty Freeman

One of the best parts about Thomas Adès’s visits with the Los Angeles Philharmonic over the last few years has been his advocacy for the music of Irish composer Gerald Barry. Adès brought concert versions of Barry’s first opera The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit to L.A. in 2006 and later to New York. This Thursday, Adès conducted the world premiere of a decidedly funny operatic treatment of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. It was a match made in heaven. Barry’s penchant for musical wit proved ideal for one of the all-time great comedies. Barry does make some judicious cuts to the play's text, bringing Wilde’s three acts to just under 90 minutes of music. But Wilde’s magnificent word play is left intact and Barry manages to preserve the joys of the original syntax with music that is sly yet respectful of the text. The orchestra is reduced to a string quartet plus bass with a nearly full orchestra accompaniment of brass and woodwinds, percussion and piano. Despite the relatively smaller size of the orchestra, though, the imbalance of wind instruments made for plenty of sound for the vocalists to contend with. It is not a work of lush lyricism, but the blustering, cajoling, and scurrying sounds of the winds proved a perfect counterpoint for comedy not unlike Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, which was often brought to my mind musically in the performance.

The piece begins with a prerecorded intro of the butchered piano version of "Auld Langs Syne" Algernon Moncrieff is playing in the next room. This subsides as the cast enters including Gordon Gietz as John Worthing, Joshua Bloom as Algernon Moncrieff, Katalin Károlyi as Gwendolen Fairfax, and most hysterically, bass Stephen Richardson as a booming, blustering Lady Bracknell. At first the vocal lines are performed independently of the music, entering only in a call and response fashion during pauses. The characters sing their lines in punctuated and stilted ways at times rushing through lines in arpeggios or scales highlighting the rhythm of the text. At other times the lines are broken down into awkward distinct syllables. Vocal lines rapidly rise and plunge without warning for their own comical effect. Some of the text is spoken as opposed to sung and occasionally there were electronically processed segments as well. In one of the best moments of the show, Gwendolen and John’s ward Cicely Cardew, sung wonderfully here by Hila Plitmann, meet unexpectedly on John’s country estate. They soon quarrel comically over their incorrect assumption that they are both engaged to the same man, Earnest Worthing. As the two argue they sing their lines into bullhorns and as Gwendolen commences her final volley of insult and outrage, each word of her vocal line is interrupted by a plate smashing to the ground. After two percussionists have gone through 40 or so of these smashed plates on stage, Gwendolen’s tirade ends punctuated with four gunshots. And while it might not be the most subtle scoring in the world, Barry’s musical language speaks volumes about the emotional content of the characters in this comic scene. At other times, Lady Bracknell’s respect for things German boils over into sections of the text that are suddenly sung by her in German at emotional climaxes.

The music is filled with references to other musical genres referenced in the plot. And there are comical parodies of popular songs in several places punctuated with telephone rings and other comic sounds and motifs. The smaller roles were well served with Hilary Summers as Miss Prism and Matthew Anchel as Dr. Chasuble. But Barry has maintained focus on the two couples and Bracknell in his libretto. Wilde's text does create a bit of an obstacle in the third act, though, even with Barry's cuts. Given that the play's conclusion involves a fair amount of didactic explanation of John's history, the third act of the opera is a bit drier in tone than the first two. At the first performance, there was a single intermission between Act II and Act III that might better have been omitted, keeping the show's energy going through the end. As it was, things petered out slightly with the break. But with so much humor and creativity in Barry's version of The Importance of Being Earnest, the work on the whole is a wonderful success. It repeats again tonight and comes highly recommended.



Could you actually understand everything being spoken and sung?
The non-musical sounds in Disney do not make for a pleasant evening. Muddy sound gets new meaning.
Orchestrally Disney Hall is a wonder, but as soon as a microphone shows up for spoken or sung words, good luck.
I didn't have so much of a problem with the amplification. It may have been in part due to the familiarity of the text and the English supertitles, but it worked for me.
There was no voice amplification in that show, except for about five minutes of dialog spoken through megaphones and about five seconds of prerecorded singing. The microphones were there for the purposes of archival recording only, just like at most other Philharmonic concerts.
Thanks Mark. I didn't get the impression that there was any amplification, especially with regards to the voices. But sometimes when its done well, it is hard to tell and people have gotten so good at hiding microphones these days.

I did get the impression that the speakers were used to play some pre-recorded elements however like Algernon's mangled piano overture.
All prerecorded segments were played through speakers, obviously, including the opening piano solo, but that was not what apparently bothered the first commenter here. All i am saying is that live singing (and even most of the speaking) was NOT amplified which is why it was difficult to hear it at times.
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