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The Triumph Of Energy Over Poetry

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
03/28/2008 -  
Gerald Barry: The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit (Concert performance; New York premiere)

Stephen Wallace and William Purefoy (Countertenors: “Pleasure” and “Youth”), Christopher Lemmings (Tenor: “Beauty”); Roderick Williams (Baritone: “Deceit”), Stephen Richardson (Bass: “Time”)
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Thomas Adès (Conductor)

For the first of his two concerts, the singularly prolific composer chose not to broadcast his own work, but that of a contemporary, Gerald Barry, in an opera commissioned by the BBC some 15 years ago and here set as a concert piece. It was remarkable in one way – the virtuosity of singers and players, the spot-on conducting of Adès, and the non-stop energetic music by Mr. Barry in attendance.

But those of us who had time to read the libretto by poet Meredith Oakes were frankly dismayed. This was not your commonplace libretto at all, set for sacrifice, smashing, molding, melding by the composer. Nor was this a pastiche of Dryden and other 18th Century poets who wrote for Handel and his fellow Baroque composers. No, this was wonderfully evocative poetry, in 18th Century style, with perfect rhyme schemes, logical arguments and fine imagery.

Yes, the characters were your usual allegories, but Truth, Deceit, Time, and Pleasure all had their say for poor Beauty, who wanted to keep his own beauty forever. The arguments were fierce and ironic, yet serious and frequently tender. And here comes Gerald Barry with nothing in mind but deconstructing every single one of them. The words were flashed on the walls of Zankel, they came in a printed libretto, but so quick was the music, so complex words sung that one could only hope to have to read them over again at leisure.

Yet what music it was! In the entire hour concert, I doubt if more than 100 notes were sustained for more than an instant. The music was chatter-chatter from the beginning. Canon followed canon, trumpets and marimba and strings and piano followed each other with intervals of barely one note, they broke up syllables of the singer, they ran up with fractions of a duration. If poet Oakes had to add one more allegorical character, for the orchestra itself, it would be pure Energy.

Yet there was method in this musical madness. When “Deceit” sings that Beauty’s “time begins to melt /Time his final hand has dealt.”, Barry writes a vast (and yes, frantically fast) chorale, along with a chorale fugue. When “Deceit” dies, and Truth speaks of “the subtle fearful mouse…limp and dead”, the music has the form of an ancient lullaby, a 13th Century minstrel tune. Stephen Wallace, the “Pleasure” countertenor, was astonishing in duets with himself: the high range against the baritone range, like an argument. The final lines bring the music to a moment of true and absolute emotion. “Beauty:” and “Pleasure” sing an actual duet of allegorical love: “You are my delight, my comfort at night. And I’ll roll you nine times before morning.”

I was stunned throughout the whole performance by the virtuosity of all in this splendid ensemble (which has Sir Simon Rattle and Oliver Knussen on its Board of Directors). Yet by deconstructing the words, by insisting on breaking words, on putting the wrong accent on the perfectly beautiful, one felt denied an integral part of the music. Perhaps a Wittgensteinian word deconstruction is acceptable, perhaps the music is as meaningless as the poetry. Frankly, I loved it, but frankly too, I felt denied. So perhaps my own feelings are those of poet Oakes in lines which could never be understood: in performance:

“Now I find my thoughts at odds/Trying to win me to conflicting gods.”

Harry Rolnick



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