In a month in which the British political landscape has more often resembled a Beckettian wasteland than a functional European democracy – Waiting for Brexit now seems to be reaching its excruciating final chapter – a night with Gerald Barry’s absurdist, existentially fraught opera The Intelligence Park could not have been more appropriate. (So much so, in fact, that by the end of the first act I was half-wondering if those in charge of programming at the Royal Opera House had also spent the summer daylighting as SpAds). For those hoping to be baffled, beguiled, affronted and tickled all in one go then director Nigel Lowery’s brand-new production – the first since its premiere almost 30 years ago – did not disappoint.

<i>The Intelligence Park</i> © ROH | Clive Barda
The Intelligence Park
© ROH | Clive Barda

The Intelligence Park is, to use that increasingly ubiquitous and invariably irritating term, ‘meta’ on multiple levels. Firstly, and most obviously, it is an opera about an opera: Robert Paradies, an 18th-century Irish bourgeoisie, played by baritone Michel de Souza, is composing an opera seria on the romantic entanglements of a warrior, Wattle, and his enchantress lover, Daub. But when Paradies becomes enamoured by his betrothed’s singing teacher, an Italian castrato named Serafino (Patrick Terry), he becomes increasingly distracted from his creative pursuits. He, of course, is not the only one keen on the handsome cantore: his wife-to-be Jerusha (Rhian Lois) falls under the same spell, and, much to the ire of her father, the magistrate Sir Joshua Cramer (Stephen Richardson), she elopes with Serafino. (Pleasingly, the love triangle is based on the real-life adventures of 18th-century castrato Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci).

So far so good. Let’s peel back another layer. Musically, Barry’s score is jagged, impulsive and utterly unremitting. With the briefest of exceptions he keeps both his characters and audience on the tips of their toes for an exhausting two hours. Webern-esque melodies hop about like a march hare; single phrases often contain multiple octave jumps that require singers to dip in and out of their falsetto, whilst arbitrary time-signature changes and random repetitions give the music a dizzying aspect. But this is utterly in contrast to the intuitive climaxes in the text. Sir Cramer, for example, who is in nearly every sense a classic buffo bass, with lines and a plot-line that dutifully reflect his cantankerous role in the drama, is continuously undone by his music. Forced to sing in Barry’s unique lyrical design, he comes across not only unbelieving, but completely unaware of what he’s saying. Each character is like a hamster trapped in a wheel, forced to run at break-neck speed until at last collapsing, confused and exhausted – as indeed Cramer does in the final act. Barry is taunting his characters, and in doing so he toys with us. ‘Believe it if you want to’, he seems to be saying.

Rhian Lois (Jerusha Cramer) © ROH | Clive Barda
Rhian Lois (Jerusha Cramer)
© ROH | Clive Barda

The down side to all this of course, is that the music is ferociously hard (and, it has to be said, rarely to my taste). Jessica Cottis, who led a dogged London Sinfonietta in the pit, described the piece as “exquisitely difficult”, and full marks to both her and répétiteur Ashley Beauchamp for whipping the singers into shape. Each member of the cast carried Barry’s music with pinpoint accuracy right up to the bitter end (perhaps with the exception of old Cramer – did he really have an apoplectic fit, or did Richardson simply give up the ghost?). This, combined with wonderfully naff staging (described by Lowery as “messed-up Baroque”) and the whole-hearted embracement of Barry’s absurd universe from all involved made for an arresting – if bewildering – night out.

<i>The Intelligence Park</i> © ROH | Clive Barda
The Intelligence Park
© ROH | Clive Barda

Bewildering being the operative word. Alas, for all my pseudo-musicological bluster I still cannot honestly say what The Intelligence Park is actually about. A lot went right over my head: the semi-regular cameos from the Grim Reaper; Wattle and Daub's function and general get up; the constant references to time (it “disappears like lightning” we’re told). Certainly I was struck by the characters’ immense sense of sadness, compounded by the voodoo effect of Barry’s melodies. I pitied them who had no more control over their lives than the two-headed “dummies” wheeled out and smothered with cream (see what I mean?). And perhaps that is the point. We don’t know, the characters certainty don’t – Barry himself has said he has “no fixed ideas”. We all must relinquish control. Life’s but a walking shadow…

My final criticism comes in the form of a warning: if you make it to the Linbury before Cottis and the gang head off on tour, don’t sit in the Stalls. Vincent Deane’s libretto is not always the easiest to make out amongst the hullabaloo of the orchestra. Constant flitting between the action and loftily placed surtitles left me with even less of a clue than Barry would have wanted – as well as severe neck ache. Practicalities aside, Barry’s rabbit hole is worth the trip, if only to escape an equally baffling reality.

**111