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Gerald BARRY (b.1952)
The Intelligence Park (1981-90)
Opera in three acts, libretto by Vincent Deane
Robert Paradies – Richard Jackson (bass-bar)
D’Esperaudieu – Paul Harrhy (tenor)
Sir Joshua Cramer – Stephen Richardson (bass)
Jerusha Cramer – Angela Tunstall (soprano)     
Serafino – Nicholas Clapton (counter-tenor)
Faranesi – Buddug Verona (contralto)
Almeida Ensemble/Robert Houlihan
Recorded live at the Almeida Theatre, London for BBC Radio 3 in July 1991
NMC D122 [45’08 + 60’47]

 

 

‘Zany’, ‘eccentric’, ‘unhinged’, ‘downright bizarre’ – these are just a handful of critical responses regarding the music of Gerald Barry, and all of them could apply to the present release. That’s not to say there isn’t something to enjoy here, though a quick web search revealed one regular opera reviewer who openly admitted he had walked out of this opera on its first run and, likewise, simply couldn’t sit through the CDs.

I think it’s more a case of getting into the right mindset when sitting down with a work such as The Intelligence Park. Barry demands a great deal from his listener and some will not consider it worth the effort. The musical language is every bit as extreme as his recent, more successful operatic venture The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, but seen - or heard - as a piece of surreal music theatre, it has its moments.

The story and libretto are perhaps the first stumbling block. The most that Barry will give away about it is this: ‘I do not like texts which are literal and bound by logic or plot. Qualities which attract me are coolness and a bizarre artificiality which allow extreme careering at tangents. Vincent Deane’s libretto for The Intelligence Park welcomed subversion and had no interest in being gratefully set. As to what it is about I have no fixed ideas’ (Contemporary Music Review, 1999, Vol.9)

So the composer is playing tricks with us again, refusing - as he usually does - to offer ‘explanations’ or meaning. Adrian Jack’s booklet note attempts to help us a little, though he seems as foxed as anyone. We are told that The Intelligence Park is the Garden of Reason and that the subject is partly the old favourite of Baroque opera, the conflict between head and heart, duty and inclination. The central character, the composer Paradies, plans an old-fashioned ‘opera seria’ on this very topic, mainly because he falls in love with a castrato who elopes with the scatty fiancée Paradies needs to secure an income.

I agree with Jack that the ‘entire opera is best taken as a sequence of set numbers, some of which are based on the same music – in fact, drama as music’.  The musical language employed by Barry is quite extreme, for both singers and players. This generally takes the form of exceptionally angular, wide-ranging melodic lines as well as dense, dissonant harmonic textures. Electronic trickery is kept to a minimum, the only example being some taped vocals. It must be said that humour, often of a very dark kind, also pervades the score. Some of this is actually due to those wide intervals already mentioned – when you hear the singers growling in a low register followed by a squeaking falsetto, it brings what is surely an intentional smile to the face. The band also conjures up sounds that verge on circus-like burlesque and then follow it with music of real depth and beauty. The whole work is littered with extreme juxtapositions like this and it demands a great deal from the listener, so be warned. All credit must go to the musicians here, who carry out Barry’s extraordinary demands with dedication and virtuosity and make the best possible case for the opera.

Whether you consider it worth the effort getting to know a modernist opera like this is, I suppose, down to your views on contemporary music generally. Barry isn’t an easy proposition and this work particularly is quite long and complex. The booklet does try to help and there is a full libretto to make of what you will. One thing we should be grateful for is that NMC give us the chance, at medium price and in superb sound, to make up our own minds.

Tony Haywood


 



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