United Kingdom Mark Simpson, Pleasure: Soloists, Psappha, Nicholas Kok (conductor). Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, London, 12.5.2016. (MB)
Nathan – Timothy Nelson
Val – Lesley Garrett
Anna Fewmore – Steven Page
Matthew – Nick Pritchard
Tim Albery (director)
Leslie Travers (designs)
Malcolm Rippeth (lighting)
New work from composers new to opera – sometimes, as here, in the guise of co-commissions from the Royal Opera, Aldeburgh Music, and Opera North – has been prominent amongst the highlights from the Royal Opera House’s recent seasons. The London premiere of Mark Simpson’s first opera, Pleasure, would doubtless have taken place in the ROH’s own Linbury Studio Theatre, had it not been closed for refurbishment; instead, we travelled across town to the Hammersmith Lyric as part of a welcome trend for collaboration between London’s opera houses and alternative theatres and spaces. It may have been a bit of a trek for those of us living in the East – not, I promise, the only reason for my enthusiasm for the Hackney Empire – but the results, compositional and performative, justified the journey, and it is always interesting in itself to discover how opera will flourish, or otherwise, at a different venue.
Pleasure, we learned from the composer’s own note, was inspired by his ‘own experience of Liverpool’s nightlife’ during his late teens and early twenties. ‘One evening, as I stood pouring my heart out to a toilet attendant in one of the clubs, I suddenly started to see the world around me with a new sense of objectivity. I asked myself whether she might know much more about the clientele than she appeared to.’ At about the same time, in 2008, Simpson had begun to read Melanie Challenger’s poetry collection, Galatea: ‘Up until this point I had never experienced the written word as viscerally as I had experienced musical sound.’ His Royal Liverpool Philharmonic commission, A mirror-fragment… was inspired by one of her poems, and he asked Challenger, ‘in the pub after the premiere’ whether she would be willing to write a libretto for the opera whose idea had been taking root. ‘She immediately agreed, and so began our fruitful collaborative partnership.’
Not having read the programme beforehand, I admit that I had not noticed the background presence of the Hephaestus myth until reading Challenger’s note. One can certainly experience the story, ‘about a woman working in a gay bar who helps the young, lost men but is also inexplicable to them,’ purely on its own terms. However, on reflection – and a good, non-disposable opera will surely, whatever the philistines claim, always lend itself to reflection – the act of revenge of the unwanted son has provided me not only with an analogy but with a foundation for further consideration of the events and their presentation. In that respect, this may be considered in the best sense a highly traditional opera.
Simpson’s score treads a successful line between two understandings of setting: that of environment and that of the words and action. ‘Sound world’ might be an overused term, but here, I think, it really deserves mention. There is no mere imitation or importation of the sounds of clubland; the magic Mozart works with eighteenth-century dance music is, after all, alchemical, not mimetical. There is nevertheless much that is evocative: not just the synthesiser sound – often present, but never overused, and rarely albeit tellingly employed as the principal sonic ingredient – and not just the rhythms (for instance, of drag queen Anna Fewmore’s most public commentary), but also, and perhaps for me most intriguingly, in the darkness of the typical band sonority. Redolent in some respects of Weill before he (more or less) sold out, albeit a Weill of now rather than ‘then’, the music presents and furthers not only such alienation but also invitation. Indeed, the one feeds off the other, the drama anything but Brechtian: again, if I may, rather traditionally operatic. Henze came to my mind as, if not an inspiration, at least a forerunner.
Likewise its structuring and the consequent crystallisation of moments of realisation, of emotional climaxes. Val’s final lament belongs to, or at least may be placed in, a tradition one might trace back through Janáček to Purcell, and further back still. Having lost her son, Nathan, once, through the distant yet present tragedy of her rape, she has now lost him again, finally, from an overdose, brought on by her denial that she was the woman he thought – and presumably still knew – her to be. ‘A son she never wanted to have/A son she never wanted to know’. She cannot quite rise to the occasion as a Puccini heroine would; that, surely, is the point. Yet, ‘I’ll embrace you as I should have done. I’ll tell you that I know you.’ Meanwhile, in time-honoured tradition, the sounds of a callous external world intrude; Anna Fewmore calls. ‘Come, all you exquisite creatures. Come!’ That final cry echoes and subverts, yet also offers catharsis of a sort. The loneliness of all concerned – to whom we must add Matthew, intoxicated by Nathan’s beauty, cruelly disabused by the cynical wisdom of the drag queen who has seen it all – is perhaps the strongest echo of all, brought to dramatic life in both of those understandings of ‘setting’: environmental and verbal.
That would have come to very little, of course, without strong performances and staging. Nicholas Kok led the Manchester-based ensemble, Psappha in an incisive performance. It should perhaps come as no surprise that some of the most arresting instrumental writing should have been for clarinets (Dov Goldberg and Scott Lygate), given Simpson’s prowess as a clarinettist. The whole ensemble shone, though: positioned on stage as upstairs ‘band’: a Chorus of and for this world. The excellent set and costume designs of Leslie Travers and Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting contributed greatly to so much of what I have outlined above. This was a setting in which one could believe, in which Tim Albery’s direction of the singers made sense and came to life – and death.
Leslie Garrett’s portrayal of Val duly tugged at the heart strings. In the opening scene, I was a little unsure. Would occasional imperfections of intonation prove too much of a difficulty? Not at all: vocal and verbal sincerity, coupled with palpable dramatic identification entirely won me over. Steven Page’s Anna was worldly-wise, yes, but just as emotionally truthful’. Not for nothing had Simpson’s original ambition been to write an opera set amongst the drag queens of Liverpool. Brought to life just as powerfully, just as intelligently, were the romantic yearning – this was certainly not all youthful lust – of Nick Pritchard’s Matthew and the tragic bewilderment and predicament of Timothy Nelson’s Nathan. All four singers, it seemed, not only believed in their characters; they created and gave form to them before our eyes and ears. Such is the godlike business of art, as Hephaestus’s father – or at least his poetic creators – might have told us. So also might Anna in her ‘art of decay’, born, Challenger revealed, of the ‘brilliant spit-and-sawdust humour of Mancunian drag queen, Divine David’. PLEASURE. then, was spelled out to us, sometimes completely, sometimes in forlorn or aspirant fragments: not just scenically, but musico-dramatically too
‘Do you think,’ Nathan asked Matthew, ‘it’s possible to separate yourself and become something different?’ Performance and work alike asked more questions than they could answer; such, after all, is the role of drama. However, the part of that question that relates to opera in general as well as to this specific opera was, in a sense, answered, as well as further questioned, by so fruitful a development of tradition.