Since its original opening in 1990, Gerald Barry’s very first opera has not seen many outings, and it is not hard to see why. To bring it back to the stage today, as the Royal Opera has chosen to do in this collaboration with Music Theatre Wales, is to possess a certain kind of recklessness and taste for risk that is unfortunately hard to find nowadays on stages in the UK and beyond. In light of this, a word of warning must necessarily be given: Barry’s work is most certainly not for everyone. Those who are at their first approaches to opera, or who don’t have much love or patience for highly experimental music, rife with dissonance and distortion, might very well come out of it confused and underwhelmed, if not actively irked. By the very nature of its libretto and score, The Intelligence Park is a work of a love-it-or-hate-it kind, which is sure to cause strongly polarised reactions. It is hard to imagine it ever leaving anyone indifferent, something that is both a strength and a challenge for a new production approaching it. One initial major achievement, then, both on the part of the cast as a whole and of the London Sinfonietta, which provides the music, is that they tackled what was clearly an extremely difficult work without fear and without restraint, delivering a solid and almost seamless performance in spite of its high level of challenge. Lovers of technical finesse will find much to appreciate among the clashing, jumpy notes of this modern opera.
Strong personalities are also infused by all in the cast into their characters, ranging from cheeky to domineering, tiptoeing constantly on the very thin line that separates comedic from tragic. Michel de Souza is indecisive and perpetually uncomfortable as composer Robert Paradies, but doesn’t miss a beat in a particularly tough vocal performance. He is counterbalanced on stage by Adrian Dwyer’s sardonic D’Esperaudieu, one of the stand-out performances together with Stephen Richardson’s luciferine Joshua Cramer (equally splendid in his lower range and in his stage presence) and Stephanie Marshall as the androgynous Faranesi. Patrick Terry as Serafino makes good use of the well-rounded quality of his voice to lend weight to his part, sung almost entirely in Italian; Rhian Lois lends a cheekiness serving as a veil to hide tragic fatality to her Jerusha Cramer. In a work such as this, where the low musical approachability of the score might create a barrier between the story (surprisingly, oddly canonical for opera, where the score itself is so experimental) and its audience, the performers’ charme is fundamental; it is quite possibly the greatest strength of this production, with strong physical performances all round smoothing some of the rougher edges of the work.
The stage setting and design also merits comment, in its ability to think out of the box when it comes to choices on how to represent the Dublin often evoked in the libretto but rarely seen at all as a real backdrop for the action. The choice to stage a stroll through the city by having papier-maché building scroll down in the background is particularly ingenious, and a good item to exemplify the way in which the stage directions finds unexpected solutions for unexpected problems. The costume design chooses the path of the wild and surreal, which is a match for the music; though one is left wondering whether a better effect might have been achieved by creating a contrast between stage appearance and score, by resorting to a more understated appearance for the characters.
For lovers of the unusual, surreal, and unexpected, The Intelligence Park is a production that will have a strong appeal; those who are less adventurous, however, might be left puzzled or even find it offputting. This is in the very nature of Barry’s work, and the choice to not try and temper it is admirable in this production, even with the obvious risks that it carries. It is a good reminder to us all that there is, and there must be, a place on stage for remarkable oddities, and that one of the duties of performative arts is to push their limits and wander beyond their comfort zones into the wild and untamed areas that artists like Gerald Barry liked to explore. The journey is not without peril, but whatever the result, it is nonetheless always worth attempting.
RNCM, October 12
Birmingham Repertory Theatre, November 4