Pleasure (Snape Maltings Britten Studio and tour)
A new opera by Mark Simpson set in the toilets of a gay nightclub
Business before Pleasure: this is the third year of new chamber opera co-commissions by Aldeburgh Music, Opera North and The Royal Opera, and it's a feather in all three company caps. At a stroke one lucky composer is guaranteed a top director — this year Tim Albery — and a proper tour rather than a one-nighter, with exposure in not one but three of England's musical epicentres: Leeds, London and, as last night, tiny Snape, home of the Aldeburgh Festival.
Of course, these exciting opportunities aren't worth a dime if the piece itself doesn't cut it.
Pleasure is interesting, for sure, and its composer, Mark Simpson (famously the BBC's Young Musician and Young Composer of the same year, 2006) knows his way round a ten-piece orchestra; but like too many new operas it lacks dramatic know-how. In comparison with an earlier offering this year, Stuart McRae's taut, theatrically rich tale The Devil Inside with its almost identical cast shape (and one shared singer in Steven Page), it is thin gruel.
Val (Lesley Garrett) minds the toilets in 'Pleasure', a gay nightclub that seams with anything but the delights of its name. The mysterious Nathan (Timothy Nelson) creeps in and leaves little home-crafted presents for Val — but why? When he makes himself known to her, we find out.
The librettist of Pleasure has not written for the stage before, and it shows. Melanie Challenger is a poet, which is all very well; but writing words for opera is a craft before it's an art. Too few modern composers remember that fact even though their forebear Benjamin Britten never lost sight of it (at least not after The Rape of Lucretia).
It is down to Challenger rather than Simpson that despite its brevity at 75 angsty minutes, their opera sags in the middle. When the doe-eyed Matthew (Nick Pritchard) chats Nathan up with "Your body singing its perfect note in the world gives us reason to experience simple delight", we long for him to cut to the payoff: "Is this your first time?".
The slender plot is saved by its score: a restless, intertwining affair of clarinets, a little brass, solo strings and percussion, all bound together by a brilliantly programmed synthesiser as though a swarm of insects were buzzing round the lavatories (although this would be at odds with Val's attentiveness, not to mention Leslie Travers' super-stylised neon-and-chrome set).
There are times when Simpson's music strains to wax melodic but doesn't dare, which is a shame. Page's screaming queen Anna Fewmore cries out for a splash more razzmatazz. Nevertheless, the orchestration is masterly and it's superbly rendered by Psappha under Nicholas Kok.
Pritchard and Nelson breathe maximum life into their colourless characters and both are excellent, as is Page in his defacating, balloon-popping but dramatically unfocused booze-fuelled pomp.
Yet it is Garrett who astonishes. Dowdy, dishevelled and downtrodden, she convinces throughout and wrings the heart with her final soliloquy. The Britten Studio boasts a crystalline acoustic that forgives nothing, but for five tear-stained minutes there was nothing to forgive. Her touching "slapper of the crapper" lifts Pleasure out of its cubicle and into something like a state of grace.
Pleasure runs at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith on 12, 13 and 14 May.