Mark Simpson’s new opera Pleasure is as a co-commission and co-production between Aldeburgh Music, Opera North and The Royal Opera House (and presented in London in association with the Lyric Hammersmith).
Pleasure was devised as part of the Jerwood Opera Writing Programme and explores a traditional Greek narrative superimposed into a Gay bar in the modern day. This clashing of style (the original story, meets modern language, meets the dramatic form of opera) is perhaps what makes the libretto feel blunt and at points quite unsophisticated. Within the first thirty seconds of singing, Val, sung by Lesley Garrett, has already declared the title, and although the ‘Vallie of the Lavvy’ does have some heartfelt advice her language, (as well as that of the piece overall) felt very on the nose. These decisions necessitate the opera to be highly self-aware and although this suited the style of a Greek chorus, in practice it read as over-acted with emotional stakes that were just too high.
The overture and the harsh lighting by Malcolm Rippeth was atmospheric, presenting a suitable setting that was dark and grimey. The opening is highlighted by unfamiliar musical decisions (with indistinguishable instruments and strings that sirened and sounded electric) which built a space that was surprising and where (musically at least) anything was possible. Many of the vocal phrases seemed constructed in the same way. They were similar in length and musical duration which led to conversations that became aurally monotonous. This pace issue bled into the opera as a whole making the story-telling suspended and unbelievable. However, it did draw attention to the free moments of transition between the spaces of place and time in this piece. These were some of the most satisfying musical moments; where the music shifted tempo playing with rhythm between the singing, and in broad strokes set the atmosphere of the next part of the narrative. This moved our focus to the excellent Psappha Ensemble, generously led by Nicholas Kok, who are placed in contrast to the singers. Simpson seems focused on the lower sounds and instruments but vocally he’s interested in the high register. The musicians were physically raised above the space and constantly visible whereas the singers leave the space and on the whole remain on the lower level, creating a great contrast between singers and musicians.
Lesley Garrett returns to a ROH production playing Val, the bathroom attendant who comes face to face with a son she gave up in her youth. Garrett is appealing to watch and even her smaller actions and gestures are engaging and thought through. Vocally her diction and clarity were excellent and dramatically there were tender moments as she became lost in thought at her cleaning station. Her performance at times lacked the strength it needed for some of the sustained phrases in her higher register, but overall she gave a charming performance.
Steven Page gave a daring performance as Anna Fewmore, one of the long term Queens at the nightclub. His two arias were some of the most engaging points of this piece, the second in particular showed off the warmer tones of this tenor with qualities that were more smooth and playful. Page’s characterisation was good and sprinkled a light and glittery relief (albeit perhaps one of a false nature) to the harsher moments of this story.
There were good performances from the lovers played by Timothy Nelson and Nick Pritchard, who seemed to represent hope and yet an inevitable sense of chaos sharing a first kiss next to an overflowing rubbish bin, dimly lit by a street lamp. Both singers had a lovely tone with a pleasing top register to their voices.
The major element of Leslie Travers’ set are the large, empty letters arranged over stage somewhat ironically presenting the word ‘PLEASURE’, which flash in various shades of neon throughout the show. The rest of the set is bare and metallic with long hanging silver curtains surrounding the stage. The spaces are simply defined, the lamp post emerging from the ‘L’ stage right was a particularly nice touch. The orchestra are on a raised space above the action, and when he sings in character Page also performs from this space too. It is well lit by Rippeth, who manages to conjure three different spaces surrounding the grimey nightclub. Anna Fewmore swans onto the stage wearing a filthy dressing gown and undergoes some glamorous and ridiculous costume changes and designs also by Travers. Most of the dressing and undressing of this character has been directed in the audience’s view and in a strange way this decision seems to challenge the concept of the strip tease and the sexualized naked body. The complicated decision conveying the Greek chorus through pre-recorded sound was unclear and needed further dramaturgical grounding for the sound design element to not feel tagged on. It did of course link to Anna Fewmore’s amplified world beyond the shimmering curtain but required more than just the feeling of disorientation.
As a piece of theatre Pleasure doesn’t hold up, and although it was performed by some excellent musicians perhaps contemporary opera demands something more cohesive and three dimensional to engage audiences regardless of the ‘risky’ subject choice.
Pleasure is played at The Lyric Hammersmith until 14 May. For more information, see the website: Royal Opera House website.
Photo: Robert Workman