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Music review: L.A. Phil premieres Gerald Barry's sensational opera 'The Importance of Being Earnest'

April 8, 2011 |  2:32 pm

Earnest
Last week, the Los Angeles Philharmonic mounted “A Tribute to Ernest.” And people are still talking about it, a great gratis Green Umbrella concert, a legendary occasion in memory of a legendary orchestra manager, Ernest Fleischmann.

That should be enough legends -- and Ernests -- for a busy two weeks at Walt Disney Concert Hall. But the L.A. Philharmonic has done it again. On Thursday night it presented the world premiere of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” an opera by Gerald Barry, as part of its “Aspects of Adès” festival.

Thomas Adès -- who counts the 58-year-old Irish composer, little performed in the U.S., as his favorite colleague –- conducted. The opera is hysterically funny. The score is highly sophisticated and indescribably zany. Although unstaged, the concert performance proved marvelous theater.

The world now has something rare: a new genuinely comic opera and maybe the most inventive Oscar Wilde opera since Richard Strauss’ “Salome” more than a century ago. And something else very rare: the commission and premiere of a major opera by a symphony orchestra. That is something even the innovative other Ernest never thought to do.

The only thing lacking for this jubilant evening was a sense of occasion.

The L.A. Philharmonic has a unique Wilde connection. The orchestra's founder, William Andrews Clark Jr., amassed the world’s most comprehensive collection of Wilde materials, now housed at the Clark Memorial Library on West Adams. But the Wilde world did not come Thursday.

The opera world did not come, either. L.A. Philharmonic subscribers turned in seats and many were empty.

Barry has the reputation of being a madcap eccentric. Five years ago, Adès conducted the U.S. premiere of Barry’s second opera, “The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit,” at a Green Umbrella concert, and it was a triumph of nonstop nuttiness.

In a pre-concert discussion Thursday, Barry said that he doesn’t have a well-developed sense of knowing what is appropriate or inappropriate, and that is certainly true, in the best possible sense, with his “Earnest.” He trimmed Wilde’s text but remained true to it. Although he did allow himself a few truly mad flights of fancy, such as his side-splitting settings of Friedrich Schiller's “Ode to Joy” that  Beethoven famously used in his Ninth Symphony. Oh, and the fact that he turned the upright Lady Bracknell into a bass part in drag?  Barry said he thought of her as a big rugby player from Wales.

Other than that, this is a straightforward “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which concerns two young ladies who will only marry men named Earnest and two scallywags who love them, a story that is anything but straight. Early in the play, for instance, Jack (a tenor) and Algernon (a baritone) carry on about cucumber sandwiches.

Their duet is set to fractured 12-tone melodic lines that hop, skip and jump like the avant-garde of old. Wilde’s rhythms are knocked askew, yet every word comes across and the brilliant absurdity of the dialogue and situation had the audiences in stitches.

The whole opera is like that, although certainly not in 12-tone technique. In fact, Barry starts with a prerecorded piano prologue based on “Auld Lang Syne,” which he said was a tribute to the late Los Angeles patron Betty Freeman, who adored his music, and that tune has an engagingly hilarious way of popping up at the most unexpected moments.

There are lots of kinds of music in this 78-minute score, which goes by so fast you can rarely catch your breath. Among the more extreme is a duet for Cecily (a soprano) and Gwendolen (a mezzo-soprano) written in the rhythmic melodic speech known as sprechstimme. Barry adds a few novelties, such as having the women speak through megaphones and requiring two percussionists to accompany them by smashing plates. Indeed, enough china was destroyed in this duet Thursday to resurface the concert hall's rose fountain if its broken Delftware ever needs replacing.

The orchestra is an unusual chamber ensemble in which winds outnumber strings and brass outnumber winds. The players, like the singers, must be dazzling all the time; still this was a first performance that would be hard to imagine bettered.

Adès conducted complicated rhythms with wonderful élan and character. The cast –- Gordon Gietz (Jack), Joshua Bloom (Algernon), Hila Plitmann (Cecily), Katalin Károlyi Gwendolen), Hilary Summers (Miss Prism), Stephen Richardson (Lady Bracknell), Adam Lau (Lane/Merriman) and Matthew Anchel (Dr. Chasuble, a spoken part) -– was engagingly funny and mind-bogglingly virtuosic.

After a single repeat Friday, the opera won’t be performed again until Adès and most of the cast reassemble a year from now in London for a concert performance at the Barbican Centre. By then, word will be out and it will be a major event.

RELATED:

Music review: The Los Angeles Philharmonic's 'Aspects of Adès' gets off to a start with Stravinsky

Thomas Adès in all his aspects

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Thomas Adès conducting the world premiere of Gerald Barry's "The Importance of Being Earnest" at Walt Disney Concert Hall Thursday night. Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times.

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