This concert performance of Gerald Barry's first opera, The Intelligence Park, was the first time the opera has been aired since its initial production twenty-one years ago at the Almeida Festival in London. A raucous and triumphant show, it was a salute to the first foray into opera by an idiosyncratic opera composer.
Barry, Ireland's foremost art music composer, was in the headlines recently when his opera The Importance of Being Earnest had its debut concert performance in Los Angeles, given by the LA Philharmonic conducted by Tom Adès. Adès is a champion of Barry's music and the opera received a rave review by Mark Swed of The LA Times. But others were less enamoured: many season ticket holders, disgusted by what they heard, walked out, and a slew of angry responses followed Swed's effusive article.
Controversy of this sort is nothing new to Barry. In 1988, his orchestral work Cheveux-de-frise – the name is taken from a military term with connotations for England's imperial past in Ireland – was heavily booed upon its premiere performance at the Proms. And Barry's opera The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, given its stage premiere at the Coliseum in 2005 by ENO, to generally favourable reactions, had vocal detractors; The Telegraph, for example, calling it 'a repellent opera, stuffed with cheap contempt, arty pretensions and hideous music.'
There was no such danger here of a negative response to Barry's spike-pronged music. The atmosphere in The Irish Museum of Modern Art was convivial and celebratory, picking up on the high spirits and pride that had descended on the country with the Queen's visit. Many artistic and cultural luminaries of Irish public life were visible in the crowd before the concert, having made the trip to IMMA following the Queen's visit to Trinity College the previous afternoon, where many of them had met the sovereign.
It was a week in Dublin that wasn't short of of event. One of Ireland's most distinguished politicians, Dr Garrett Fitzgerald, passed away on Thursday, an event, too, that had an impact on the concert: the libretto of The Intelligence Park is by Vincent Deane, Fitzgerald's son-in-law, who was absent on the night.
The events of The Intelligence Park happen over a couple of days in Dublin in 1753. The plot follows the composer Robert Paradies (baritone Roderick Williams), an opera seria composer who is suffering from writer's block. Flanked perennially by his companion D'Esperaudieu (tenor John Daszak), Paradies is engaged to Jerusha Cramer (soprano Sarah Gabriel), the daughter of the rich judge Joshua Cramer (bass Stephen Richardson). But Paradies becomes obsessed with Jerusha's singing teacher, the castrato Serafino (countertenor Andrew Watts), in turn attended by his own companion Faranesi (mezzo Loré Lixenberg); and when Serafino elopes with Jerusha, all hell breaks loose.
The opera offers plenty in the way of jealousy, obsession, love, and betrayal, and to this end is quite traditional in its approach to the form. But in most other respects it is far removed: most obviously in the clamorous orchestral score and the gymnastic vocal writing, which reflect what Barry calls 'the coolness and bizarre artificiality' of Deane’s libretto.
Said libretto unfortunately for the most part eluded the listener's ear. The loudness of the acoustic in the venue and the nature of the writing precluded one's grasping the words being sung, and since the action wasn't staged, and no surtitles were available in the venue, and the libretto wasn't printed in the programme, it was at times difficult to follow the action. But a synopsis was provided in the programme and in many ways the music spoke for itself.
One of the chief sources of entertainment was the angular absurdity of the vocal writing. The standout was Richardson as Judge Cramer, directed much of the time to sing in falsetto and rich in exaggerated facial expressions. In the second scene of act one he listed the household products in his possession with a gradually swooping vocal contour that was hilariously pulled off. The other standout was Watts as the castrato Serafino. This was the third time I’ve witnessed Watts in performance and the power and precision of his countertenor always impresses.
Less impressive was the young Sarah Gabriel, her voice too thin to command her demanding part, though in the expressivity of her performance she someway made that up. The other singers, including the boy soprano Gavin Jones, pulled together well.
Much of the credit for the success of this production must go to The Crash Ensemble. Though at first too loud in relation to the vocalists, a good balance was soon struck and the weird sonic mishmash of Barry's score couldn't have wanted a better realisation. All credit, too, to conductor Richard Baker, who conducted with concentration and mettle.
By Liam Cagney