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27 Sep 2019

Gerald Barry's The Intelligence Park at the ROH's Linbury Theatre

Walk for 10 minutes or so due north of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and you come to Brunswick Square, home to the Foundling Museum which was established in 1739 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram to care for children lost but lucky.

Gerald Barry’s The Intelligence Park: Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House

A review by Claire Seymour

Photo credit: Clive Barda


Currently showing at the Museum is a fantastic special exhibition, Two Last Nights! Show Business in Georgian Britain, which opens a window on the often riotous and raucous goings-on both front-of-house and behind-the-scenes in the eighteenth-century theatre and opera house, through exhibits such as fans printed with seating-plans to show where the great and good could be found, large illustrated tickets which are works of art in themselves, sharp contemporary cartoons and over-crowded playbills.

The latter are astonishing, showing the extent and diversity of the variety and vaudeville, sketches and song on offer each long evening of entertainment. A similar bill in the Burney Collection at the British Library gives the flavour: at the King’s Street Theatre in Bristol on the evening of 23rd August 1775, theatre-goers could enjoy Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, before which they were treated to a Prelude written by one George Colman Esq., while the play was followed by a ‘New Dance to which will be added A New Dramatic Entertainment, The Maid of the Oaks’, concluding with a Fête champêtre - illuminated with ‘near one thousand lamps’ original songs and choruses, a new minuet. The whole evening concluding with a dance. Preludes and after-pieces, divertissements and dances, comedies, dramatic romances, tragedies and farce frequently collided. Not surprising, Hogarth’s pen skewered both the artistes and the players, the aristocrats and the plebs.

I justify this rather diversionary preamble to my review of Music Theatre Wales’ production of The Intelligence Park at the ROH’s Linbury Theatre because Gerald Barry’s first opera resembles such a marathon Baroque bombardment. Both Hogarth and Handel, the latter whom Barry professes to admire, were fervent supporters of the Foundling Hospital Chapel - from 1749 Handel gave an annual benefit concert, raising thousands of pounds for the Hospital - and Barry channels Hogarth in his metatheatrical mash-up, though with little of the neoclassical wit and precision, tempered by soul-touching lyrical sentiment, that Stravinsky demonstrates in The Rake’s Progress. Instead Barry wields an iconoclastic sledgehammer, bludgeoning all connections between sound and syntax that might provide structural and semantic coherence … or, at least a semblance of comprehensibility.

Michel de Souza Adrian Dwyer.jpgMichel de Souza as Paradies, Adrian Dwyer as D'Esperaudieu Photo credit: Clive Barda.

But, then, Barry’s not in the business of ‘coherence’. In the sleeve notes to the 2005 NMC recording of the first production of The Intelligence Park at the Almeida Theatre in July 1991 (which was broadcast on BBC Radio 3), Barry professes not to like ‘texts which are bound by logic or plot’, preferring instead those, such as that by his librettist Vincent Deane, characterised by ‘coolness and a bizarre artificiality which allow extreme careering at tangents’.

In fact, the essential plot and the ‘opera-about-opera’ paradigm of The Intelligence Park are pretty straightforward, it’s the idiom and execution which scramble reason and rationality. The time is 1753, the place Dublin. Robert Paradies has composer’s block and is struggling to complete his new opera. Marriage to his fiancée, Jerusha Cramer, will bring him her bombastic father’s money, and the leisure to devote himself to his art. But, he’s obsessed with the castrato Serafino, who is Jerusha’s singing teacher. Worse still teacher and pupil elope. The plus side is that Paradies infatuation fuels his musical inspiration; the downside is that Serafino and Jerusha transmute into Wattle and Daub who find their way into his opera. As real and imagined become inextricably tied up in creative and romantic knots, Paradies loses his grip.

Paradies with masks.jpg Photo credit: Clive Barda.

As a metareferential document of a creative crisis, The Intelligence Park is not, in theory, so different from Franz Schreker’s penultimate opera,Christophorus oder ‘Die Vision einer Oper’ ( St Christopher, or ‘The Vision of an Opera, 1924-29). Barry, though, sets out to destroy any conduit through which intelligibility might be communicated. The vocal lines deliberate disrupt syntax and meaning, through rhythmic fracture, elongation and hysterical stuttering, and through melodic and registral displacement and athletic angularity. The singers are required to essay vocal gymnastics, with the male roles leaping between falsetto and Hadean depths. If the word-setting is not so much arbitrary as deliberately anarchic, then the prevailing fortissimo wind-brass dominated accompaniment of punching patterns of repetitive staccatos obliterates the text in any case. In the Linbury Theatre I could detect scarcely a word of Deane’s 18th-century linguistic style-games, which are themselves intercut with splashes of Italian, and was forced to choose between gazing up at the oh-so-high surtitles to learn what was being said or looking at the stage itself to try to work out what was going on. Neither course of action produced a satisfying result.

Production shot door.jpg Adrian Dwyer as D'Esperaudieu, Stephen Richardson as Sir Joshua Cramer, Stephanie Marshall as Faranesi. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

There is no danger of music and words coming together in any ‘meaningful’ relationship; indeed, they are surely designed to be in combat. Each theatrical element does battle with every other aspect of the ‘drama’ and the result is a frenetic but self-consuming energy which burns itself to obliteration on a bonfire of the bizarre. Director-designer Nigel Lowery’s toy theatre-style painted sets are imaginative and eye-catching. But Lowery substitutes excess for elucidation: smeared clown make-up, outsize Aristophanic head masks, manic stage business - all seems designed to obscure rather than to explicate.

Rhian Lois as Jerusha Cramer.jpgRhian Lois as Jerusha Cramer Photo credit: Clive Barda.

The cast, however, give their all. It was announced at the start that Michel de Souza was unwell, and surely by the end he must have felt truly dreadful having been asked to force his voice high and low, and generally swallow and strangle sound and syllable. As he companion D’Esperaudieu, Adrian Dwyer was more successful than most in communicating if not meaning then at least words, and he and Rhian Lois as Jerusha were able to produce a focused tone which could carry about the tumult and communicate with some directness. Not so Patrick Terry, as Serafino, who, despite a characteristically committed and game performance was often inaudible. Stephen Richardson threw himself about the stage and his voice in all directions as Sir Joseph Cramer; Stephanie Marshall completed the dedicated cast. Raphael Flutter’s solo treble was transmitted in recorded form via the bobbing heads of the grotesque putti slouching on the columns of the theatre-within-a-theatre set. Conductor Jessica Cottis guided the London Sinfonietta confidently but when she joined the cast on stage for the curtain-call she looked exhausted, only tentatively allowing herself what seemed a relieved smile.

Patrick Terry as Serafino.jpgPatrick Terry as Serafino. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Paradies’ opera audience - who prefer card games and gastronomic cuisine to genuine ‘culture’ - formed a row of rubbery double-headed Francis Bacon-inspired Dummies: I guess this was ‘us’. But, if The Intelligence Park is an opera about unfulfilled creativity, then I wondered just whose creativity was under the spotlight. Some commentators have described Barry as a ‘visionary’. I found his fantastic, frantic pastiche tedious: thinking of Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy, or imagining what Adès might do with this conceit, made it hard to discern just what ‘vision’ it was that Barry was supposed to have had.

The Dummies Barda.jpg Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Admittedly, I was no fan of the composer’s 2011 opera The Importance of Being Earnest , which won widespread acclaim, but in that case Wilde’s perfectly well-made play was able to withstand Barry’s rough treatment. On this occasion, I began to wish that the Grim Reaper who haunted the production with increasing frequency would wield his scythe on proceedings. That said, there were plenty in the Linbury who voiced their praise vigorously at the close. Visionary or Emperor-with-no-clothes?

Claire Seymour

Gerald Barry: The Intelligence Park (Libretto: Vincent Deane)

Robert Paradies - Michel de Souza, D'Esperaudieu - Adrian Dwyer, Sir Joshua Cramer - Stephen Richardson, Jerusha Cramer - Rhian Lois, Serafino - Patrick Terry, Faranesi - Stephanie Marshall; Director and Designer - Nigel Lowery, Conductor - Jessica Cottis, Lighting assistant - Fridthjofur Thorsteinsson, London Sinfonietta

Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London; Wednesday 25th September 2019.

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