Pleasure from Pleasure

It must say something about social change that you can write an opera set in the toilets of a gay mightclub, with the leading characters a “seen it all” attendant and an ageing drag queen and nobody raises an eyebrow.  In fact, Mark Simpson’s very enjoyable new opera, commissioned by Aldeburgh, Opera North and the ROH has a lot of traditional operatic elements and proved to be an absorbing experience.  I caught it at one of its London outings at the Lyric, Hammersmith on 13th May.

It’s a short, 70 minute piece for four characters.  Matthew, the nice, rather innocent young man searches for love and men in the nightclub, confiding in Val, the attendant.  He falls for Nathan who visits the club and leaves presents for Val.  They’re observed by Anna Fewmore, the drag queen. Nathan turns out to be Val’s son, whom she’d given up for adoption.  Towards the end, he takes an overdose and dies while the rest of the world goes on.  The themes of outsiders, unrequited love, long-lost children and death and pleasure are pretty familiar operatic territory and here they’re handled well and movingly.

It helps that Melanie Challenger’s libretto is strong: the story is told almost without you noticing, in a series of scenes.  Some of the language feels a bit heightened for the setting and most of us will have entirely missed the Dionysian references which her programme note informed us were there.  But this struck me as a really good libretto by someone who actually likes opera.

Simpson sets the words pretty skilfully.  You can hear all the important ones.  He manages the urgency of the dialogue really well and some good set-piece numbers, particularly for Val and Anna.  What I missed were the ensembles that a decent opera should have and which seem so unfashionable these days, and any really memorable musical ideas.  I came out having enjoyed a thoughtful, intelligent piece of music theatre without having been knocked over by the music.

It was really well done.  Lesley Garrett was inspired casting as Val.  The voice may not be as bright as it was but it’s gained a strength and she conveyed the thoughts, the history and the love of the character.  It’s good to see her back.  Steven Page is another singer who deserves to be seen more in London.  He gave a generous, clear, complex performance as Anna Fewmore, managing the bitterness and cynicism of the role as well as its decency.

Nick Pritchard as Matthew made a convincingly obsessed young man.  He’s got a smashing tenor.  I was also impreseed by Timothy Nelson as Nathan – a strong baritone with good, convincing acting of a troubled, uncertain man.

Nicholas Kok conducted and Psappha, way above the stage, played with conviction.  Tim Albery’s direction was as clear and certain as you’d expect.  it’s great to have the opera given this sort of attention.

So, a good evening that held the house.  I’d go again and to other work by Simpson.


%d bloggers like this: