Opera diva Lesley Garrett looks so different than usual in this role that you’d struggle to recognise her.
And yet, even though the role is somewhat dowdy, her voice and acting skills still shine though, writes Ron Simpson.
Pleasure is the strongest of the new chamber operas commissioned over a three-year period by Opera North, the Royal Opera and Aldeburgh Music.
And, whether it was enthusiasm for new work or the presence of Lesley Garrett, bravely essaying a contemporary part, it’s an impressive achievement to sell out three performances at the Howard Assembly Room.
Apart from children’s opera, it seems difficult for composers and librettists these days to engage with real stories and real people, but, bizarre as the characters and situation of Pleasure are, there is a welcome directness of emotion in Melanie Challenger’s libretto and Mark Simpson’s music.
The initial premise is unpromising. Val has worked in the toilets of a gay night club for many years. Anna Fewmore, the drag queen, is an old friend and verbal sparring partner. However, the way the story develops, revealing Val’s back story and its reappearance in her life with tragic consequences, is a good deal more human than might have been expected.
Melanie Challenger’s often poetic libretto tells the story economically and words come over pretty well, partly because of Mark Simpson’s word-setting, partly because English National Opera veterans such as Steven Page and Lesley Garrett know about these things.
Mark Simpson’s music can be more interesting in the accompaniment than the vocal lines. The outstanding contemporary music ensemble, Psappha, on the level above the main stage area, under the direction of Nicholas Kok, makes the most of the urgent motor rhythms, the menacing subterranean rumbles of double bass and trombone, the ever-inventive percussion and – most of all – the beautiful and varied writing for the two clarinets (doubling bass clarinets). Simpson is also an award-winning clarinettist – no coincidence! The lyrical vocal writing can be bland in comparison, but the edgy dialogue scenes are much less so and the dramatic writing for Val as the opera progresses is impressively powerful, as is Lesley Garrett’s committed singing.
Garrett is vocally assured, but at close range one can appreciate the quality of her acting just as much. Similarly with Steven Page, a master of the understated grotesque, who does a bit of jolly camping around as Anna Fewmore, but mainly combines anger against society with compassion for the individual. Timothy Nelson (Nathan) and Nick Pritchard (Matthew) sing cleanly and act intelligently without quite involving us in their characters.
Simpson and Challenger succeed in presenting a contemporary subject without throwing out operatic tradition and this is reinforced by the unfussy and assured direction of Tim Albery, a veteran of many of the best Opera North productions of mainstream opera. Leslie Travers’ ingenious designs, poised between the squalid and the spectacular, are lit by Malcolm Rippeth with a keen sense of drama.