The Intelligence Park review – brilliantly played but Barry's opera still bewilders

Linbury theatre, London
This witty production of Gerald Barry’s demanding opera about a composer with writer’s block features fine singing and playing

Gerald Barry is virtually a house composer at the Royal Opera House this season, with this Music Theatre Wales co-production acting as a prelude to the premiere staging of his Alice’s Adventures Under Ground in February. The Intelligence Park was the opera that announced his maverick credentials to the world nearly 30 years ago, and, if it was bewildering then, it’s scarcely less so now.

In the meantime, Barry’s style of writing for voices has become more of a known quantity, thanks especially to his 2010 opera of The Importance of Being Earnest. In that, and in Alice, Barry’s spiky, counterintuitive word setting, sending voices up into the stratosphere and down again into the depths in moments, and stressing syllables seemingly at random, tells a story much of the audience already knows. The Hogarth-style tale told in The Intelligence Park, set in 18th-century Dublin and involving a composer with writer’s block, an inheritance, a seduction and its consequences, is not a familiar playground in the same way – though opera fans may concede it’s exactly the kind of thing Haydn might have made a one-acter out of.

Hogarth-style tale.... Adrian Dwyer (D’Esperaudieu), Stephanie Marshall (Faranesi), Stephen Richardson (Sir Joshua Cramer), Patrick Terry (Serafino), Rhian Lois (Jerusha Cramer) and Michel de Souza (Robert Paradies) in The Intelligence Park.
Hogarth-style tale.... Adrian Dwyer (D’Esperaudieu), Stephanie Marshall (Faranesi), Stephen Richardson (Sir Joshua Cramer), Patrick Terry (Serafino), Rhian Lois (Jerusha Cramer) and Michel de Souza (Robert Paradies) in The Intelligence Park. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Barry’s music is led by Vincent Deane’s text, in that the orchestral lines often shadow the singer rhythmically. But, as the notes hit the ear like paint on a Jackson Pollock canvas, it’s so hard to hear the words that you usually end up reading them on the surtitles – and Deane’s wordy, allusive libretto, flirting with Joyce and Beckett, is no model of clarity itself.

Director and designer Nigel Lowery turns the Linbury stage into a replica of the composer Paradies’ toy theatre, with crudely drawn flats and with the characters like badly painted marionettes, bouncing around in cartoonish costumes. It’s witty, but this isn’t a comedy – at least, not in this production.

The cast does a fine job with some incredibly demanding music. Michel de Souza, announced as ill, perhaps lacked a few decibels but still convinced as the bemused Paradies, leaping between baritone and falsetto, and the rest were just as impressive. Jessica Cottis conducts with absolute security, and the London Sinfonietta plays brilliantly. But, if The Intelligence Park has great truths to tell, it keeps them well hidden.

• At the Linbury theatre, London, until 4 October, then touring.


Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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