There is an old joke that goes like this. A Jewish grandmother takes her grandson to the beach. As they sit on the sand, a large wave picks the boy up and sweeps him out to sea. Bobe implores God to bring her grandson back. “I will go to temple every Shabbat,” she promises. Another wave returns the boy to the beach. Bobe looks skywards and implores God again: “He had a hat.” It is my favourite joke and I mention it because I too had a hat. Mine was not taken by God in a seaside-related incident but left in the back of a taxi on my way to the RNCM to see The Intelligence Park by Gerald Barry.

It occurs to me that loss was a recurring theme to the evening. It was certainly present in in Barry’s modern opera that seemed to meditate on the loss of virtue, creativity and life. I say ‘seemed’ as it was a surreal tale that the libretto, written by Vincent Deane, told in a rich panache of 18th century English where meaning and narrative played a game of hide and seek in a discordant modernist musical score. A bit like that sentence, it was difficult to follow. But we do live in a world where we expect clear meaning on demand. Social media, fake news, lying politicians and their spads have reduced complexity to 124 characters so I do like a challenge. And this was a performance that challenged. So much so that the audience lost a few simple souls during the interval. The over-groomed bourgeois couple in front of me did not return for the second act. I like to think that they retreated to the safety of the unintelligent park from whence they came to seek refuge in reality TV.

The Intelligence Park is a pastiche of a Georgian farce full of verbal gusto, wit and powdered wigs. First premiered in 1990, it has not been performed since until this joint revival by the Royal Opera House, Musical Theatre Wales and London Sinfonietta. Put simply, the opera concerns Robert Paradies (Michel de Souza), a composer who has lost his imagination and creativity. As it turns out, poor de Souza had also lost his voice, a victim of a vicious autumn cold. His part was sung by super sub Richard Immerglück, from the orchestra pit. It was a feat of vocal dexterity and seamless mime. His reward was a justly deserved warm round of applause as he joined the cast for their curtain call.

The Intelligence Park The rest of the cast, D’Esperaudieu (Adrian Dwyer), Sir Joshua Cramer (Stephen Richardson), Jerusha Cramer (Rhian Lois), Faranesi (Stephanie Marshall) and Serafino (Patrick Terry) all sang with admirable voice and comic timing through this musical maze of multiple meanings and innuendo, including several bouts of vigorous sexual gymnastics in nude suits between Paradies’ intended, Jerusha, and the alleged castrato, Serafino. Engagements broken, virtue lost, and virility restored all give this intriguing opera the clarity of a Dada vowel poem.

The orchestra played with the energy the score demanded under the brilliant baton of conductor, Jessica Cottis. The design and direction by Nigel Lowery gave the production an aesthetic coherence to the turbulent saga. It was enjoyable evening at the ever excellent RNCM and as I leave, I look skywards and remind God that “I had a hat”.

By Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent