The Royal Opera House seems to be celebrating the career of Gerald Barry this season. In February they are staging his latest opera, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, and now the first staging of his debut, The Intelligence Park, since its premiere in 1990, then a co-production with Music Theatre Wales, appearing as the opening opera of the Linbury Theatre’s second season.

The opera is set in 18th-centuy Ireland and is about a man called Paradies, who is suffering writers block while trying to write an opera. At the same time, he is being forced to marry someone so that he can get a large inheritance, but he becomes infatuated by a castrato instead. Perhaps unsurprisingly, mayhem ensues.

Barry challenges the listener. A lot of the time the music seems to follow the words of the singers. They begin singing a word, then pause; the music pauses and then they finish the word. For singers, this is an incredibly challenging piece as no one simply sings in their own register. You have baritones and tenors also singing falsetto, for instance. And the way that they all must sing – stop and start, with very long extension of their voices – it’s a hard task. Moreover, Michel de Souza playing Paradies was announced to ill prior to the opera starting; and though he did sound it, he was a good actor and impressively still went on and gave his best.

Stephen Richardson, as Sir Joshua Cramer, was a highlight. His voice was one of the few strong enough to stay above the orchestra, with everything enunciated clearly. His acting, too, was entertaining. Patrick Terry, one of the current Jette Parker Young Artists, playing Serafino, has a beautiful counter-tenor voice and, when singing, was one of the few moments that I really felt connected to the opera.

The costumes and wigs were cartoon-like and colourful, the make-up exaggerated. The set is made to look like the stage that Paradies will have for his opera. It has two gargoyles, one either side of it. At the beginning of each part, the painted section of the gargoyle’s head is taken out and replaced by a type of sock puppet version, which sings, and was quite entertaining. Elsewhere, a grim reaper stalks across the stage. His first appearance, to someone off-stage singing in a mournful voice ‘Mourn, mourn’ was particularly funny, as was when the reaper later came out in stockings.

There are elements of the production, like this, that I enjoyed. However, the ‘story’, the way of telling it, the lack of projection – it was just a bit much. I understand modern composers try and challenge opera, as did Benjamin Britten and George Benjamin, whose music and style of storytelling can be different and more experimental. I like that, it’s good to try different things. With Barry however, the story was too convoluted. The sound was convoluted, that was sometimes it was just noise. Challenging opera can lead to greatness but breaking all the rules leads to something that isn’t opera, just similar.

The Intelligence Park is on at the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House until the 4th October 2019.

Words by Stuart Martin.

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