by Rachel Beaumont

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Fascinating nonsense: The Intelligence Park at the Linbury

The Intelligence Park
Royal Opera and Music Theatre Wales
Linbury Theatre
Upper Circle B6 standing, £7
4 October 2019
ROH page

The Intelligence Park is one strange opera. Composer Gerald Barry imagines an opera composer in Baroque Dublin who falls in love with his leading man, an Italian castrato, who is having an affair with the composer’s fiancée, under the nose of her rage-filled father, all observed by the composer’s louche companion. Fair enough, but while Barry’s music has at one stage ingested some music of the period, by the time it comes out the other end faith is required to see anything other than Barry sui generis. His is demented music, explicitly detached from the meaning of the words, which are broken by long pauses and huge intervals. The libretto by Vincent Deane is almost as absurd.

Given this, it is not surprising that so many people left at the interval. Indeed, they probably made the right call for their evening, as Barry is nothing if not persistent: if you hated the first half there’s not much about the second half that could change your mind. For me though, while I wouldn’t rush to see The Intelligence Park again, I found the experience of it both thrilling and fascinating. I give gratitude and credit to the production teams for their boldness in what I assume is likely to be The Intelligence Park’s only London performance for at least a generation.

Let’s start with the fascination. The Intelligence Park is Barry’s first opera. I’ve listened to it on CD a few times and didn’t draw much of a conclusion beyond it sounding a lot like Barry. This holds up in live performance: you can argue whether such consistency from The Intelligence Park in 1990 to Barry’s most recent opera Alice’s Adventures Under Ground in 2014 is a good thing or a bad thing, but it certainly is remarkable.

What I didn’t get from listening to it on CD was the interplay of this consistent musical style between different librettos. It grants enjoyable hindsight for the great success of Barry’s 2010 opera The Importance of Being Earnest and the abject failure of Alice. Deane’s libretto is, if you like, too absurd; it’s so much of a part with Barry’s music that you end marooned in a wash of nonsense. What an inspired idea, then, to anchor Barry with Wilde, whose logical substance gives you something to hang onto and where Barry’s irreverence brings yet more levity to the original. And how nearly it could have worked to pair him with Lewis Carroll – but where ultimately we are too far back in nonsense-land to care at all.

Possibly because my expectations were rather lower than for Alice, I found I really did care about The Intelligence Park. I didn’t care or even understand the characters, or the narrative; I didn’t care for the opera in the way people care for La traviata. But how thrilling to be with this opera that nearly thirty years on from its inception still sounds so bizarre, so alien, so out there; an opera where so many left at the interval and were right for themselves to do so; where singers, instrumentalists and conductor all have obviously given so much time even to be able to perform what is written, so different it is from the common idiom. How thrilling to encounter a truly absurd opera where that absurdity is diegetically confined – a Beckettian flourish, where all the attributes of a conventional opera are there but the whole is so completely different. What a delight, and what, again, a rare and cherished opportunity.

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