Mark Simpson, Pleasure (Nicholas Kok cond. Psappha, Opera North)
What would anyone expect from an opera set in the loos of a gay nightclub? In many ways, Pleasure is a very conservative opera: love/death very far from; mistaken parenthood and a long-lost son. So somewhere between Traviata and HMS Pinafore. This won't stop the Telegraph getting worked up over it, of course.
Musically I was reminded of Nyman (think of the Pleasure-themed song-cycle ), bits of Death in Venice, and some of the sparseness of Glass. At times a deep rasping sound (not a million miles from the overture of Charles Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain. This was a warm score with many beautiful moments which fitted the words and did not demand too much of its audience. A range of instrumentation got a range of sounds and textures, and on all this Simpson is to be congratulated. Nicholas Kok conducted the Psappha ensemble.
The libretto by Melanie Challenger was very successful, despite having to fit so much in. So many had come for Lesley, who played a sort of Nanny Hawkins- although the opera was substantially less camp than Brideshead Revisited – who received many gifts in gratitude. Attention to detail – the small bottle of milk taken out the tote bag at the start, for example, made this a convincing character. This may not be Garrett’s most glamourous role, but she sparkled. A warm, powerful soprano voice which was perfectly judged to fill the modest space of the Howard Assembly Room without overwhelming the space.
Nathan, the estranged son was sung by Timothy Nelson with a rich satisfying voice. Love-struck Matthew was sung by Nick Pritchard. Both acted as much as they sang. Steven Page, I can honestly say, made for the most impressive alcoholic drag-queen I’ve seen in an opera. Anna Fewmore (geddit?) behoved all to have another drink, disrobed, dressed in balloons, burst the same balloons, and goaded Matthew and Val with insouciance. This was a pretty demanding voices.
This was for me, coincidentally, the second opening of a Tim Albery opera production in the week set in a place dedicated to pleasure. The set was constructed of giant letters spelling PLEASURE designed by Leslie Travers. These were illuminated in different colour with matching spotlights by Malcolm Rippeth in an effective fashion without being tedious. In to these were worked a bin, a sink, and the promised loos. They must have loos at Venusberg too, and this effectively created a liminal space.
The hedonism and the staging made this opera for a generation which grew up listening to The Libertines. Regrettably this wasn’t the audience that was there. On one hand, it was great to see that Opera North’s standard audience trust them sufficiently to try the new and unusual, and responded very warmly; on the other hand, it seems like something of a missed opportunity. I can only hope that future performances will draw in a more diverse constituency. It is also worth noting that Opera North have opened this new piece plus the Rheingold and Walküre within eight days.
Overall, this made for a surprisingly conventional night at the opera. Fine singing and decent music-making mean it will appeal to many.
In rep at Howard Assembly Rooms until Saturday 30th April; then at Aldeburgh, Liverpool nd Lyric Hammersmith. See here.