The Importance of Being Earnest is Gerald Barry’s fourth full-length opera; his previous three have set texts much more at home in the opera world than this ambitious libretto from Wilde’s famous play. I approached this concert staging of the work with intrigue, but not a little trepidation – setting a text like this is bold and ensures bums on seats, but has its fair share of pitfalls, although Barry, mostly, avoids them.

Not least is the issue of the huge amount of text – even condensed to a third of the play, there are a lot of words to get through, and it occasionally feels as though the composer is battling with the text, trying to get through it all. Some devices work very well indeed – the cat-fight between Cecily and Gwendolen sees them declaiming their lines in strict crotchets through loudhailers whilst a percussionist ceremonially smashes plate after plate. A brilliant aural representation of the building pique disguised under the cloak of Victorian manners. Sadly there are too few moments like this, where the music expresses something more than the play performed ‘straight’ can. Most of the humour is derived from Wilde’s lines, not Barry’s score, and at times I wasn’t convinced that this text needs to be set as an opera.

In other respects, that Barry has taken this on makes perfect sense – his writing deals with extremes fitting for Wilde’s characters. Barbara Hannigan’s Cecily Cardew is wonderfully shrill, girly and trivial, and her contests with Hilary Summers’ profound alto characterising the dowdy and serious Miss Prism are genuinely funny musical portrayals of absurd characters. Casting Alan Ewing (bass) as the formidable Lady Bracknell is terrifically funny and creates an even spread of voices for the rare passages sung as chorus – a scarce nod towards traditional opera in Barry’s unusual aesthetic. Ewing must relish the chance to deliver Bracknell’s famous exclamation “A hand-bag?!” which he virtually vomits out, drawing belly-laughs from all the audience as well as some naughty members of the on-stage orchestra.

Each of the singers were terrific; Barry’s incongruous leaps of register and unusual, clipped word-setting make this a particularly difficult sing but, supported by the polished-sounding Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Thomas Adès, each line was negotiated and infused with character. In particular, Peter Tantsits’ manic but charming John Worthing explored a huge dramatic range and his love duet with Katalin Károlyi made for the evening’s highlight.

It’s difficult to judge the success of this opera without seeing it staged. In concert it hasn’t bowled me over – there’s often a disjunct between the action and the music and I never quite got over the juxtaposition of a contemporary soundworld outlining a text more dependent on its late-Victorian period than most. Nonetheless, it’s a rare treat to have a giggle at the opera.

Great Performers: Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, at Barbican Centre: HallArthur Keegan-Bole reviews the European premiere of Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest with BCMG and Thomas Adès at the Barbican.3