Pleasure, Mark Simpson, Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh Music, Suffolk, May 2016. Director Tim Albery, Psappha conducted by Nicholas Kok, reviewed by Tony Cooper
A co-commission and co-production between Aldeburgh Music, Opera North and the Royal Opera, this well-constructed and entertaining 75-minute chamber opera, Pleasure, sees Mark Simpson make his first foray into the genre in a compelling and intensive piece unfolding over ten fast-moving scenes. The work has sealed the credentials of this young Liverpudlian composer at the beginning of his opera career. What will come next? Perhaps an opera based on the life of Madame Blavatsky, a co-founder of the Theosophical Society.
Followers of the BBC’s Young Musician Competition will recall that in 2006 Simpson won the BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition playing Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto with the Northern Sinfonia under Yan Pascal Tortelier at The Sage, Gateshead. He also won the BBC Young Composer of the Year Competition, thus becoming the only person in history to have ever won both competitions – and in the same year.
In 2010, Simpson also won the Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Award and he has a growing catalogue of works to his credit. His orchestral scores A Mirror Fragment, Threads (premièred in 2008) and Sparks (2012) have been well received.
The idea of Pleasure came about from Simpson’s experiences in the hedonistic Liverpool club scene in which the toilet attendant becomes your friend, confidante and agony aunt, listens to your worries and woes in a confessional-box environment while attending to his or her workplace duties.
Opera diva Lesley Garrett, who has enjoyed the top flight in opera as an ENO principal, now finds herself in an unlikely role as Val, the Lady of the Lavatory, who even gets down upon her hands and knees to clean a galvanised-metal toilet. Something, one imagines, Garrett has never done on stage before.
Val is referred to as the Queen of the Latrine or Slapper of the Crapper by drag queen and party animal, Steven Page, cast in the role of Anna Fewmore. Always dressed for duty and, indeed, always ready for action, he gave his all as The Disco Queen, modelled, it seems, on Manchester-based drag queen, Divine David. Page was enchanting, especially when engaged in an outrageous striptease routine, attired in a myriad of coloured balloons, in scenes reminiscent of Sondheim’s La Cage aux Folles.
For the libretto, Simpson collaborated once again with Melanie Challenger. She delivered a text that was poetical, thought-provoking and rewarding. She previously provided the text for Simpson’s oratorio, The Immortal, a work inspired by John Gray’s book, The Immortalization Commission, premièred at the 2015 Manchester International Festival, which explores the subject of death and which focuses on Frederic Myers, one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research.
Simpson – who, in an unusual departure for him, employed a synthesizer in the opening bars to create a gritty and earthy rawness to the work – has composed an exhilarating score which was delivered with exuberant energy by Psappha, a ten-piece ensemble of outstanding players conducted by Nicholas Kok.
As Simpson’s chosen instrument is a clarinet, it came as no surprise that the score featured a couple of bass clarinets whose deep-edgy sound often echoed (and suited) the plight of the boys in the band, Nathan (Timothy Nelson) and Matthew (Nick Pritchard), an unsettled and emotionally-charged couple that in Tim Albery’s careful and detailed direction came across as distant, aloof and rubbing up against society.
Death, however, lay at the heart of Pleasure with a dramatic conclusion involving Nathan, while Val’s lament, sung with great tenderness and feeling by Ms Garrett, summed up the theme and, indeed, the tragedy of the opera which focuses on love, drug use and identity.
The creative team was admirably completed by Leslie Travers (set and costume design) and Malcolm Rippeth (lighting). The set was striking and commanded by the presence of floor-to-ceiling letters outlining the title of the opera in an ever-changing rainbow-coloured neon-lit sign with shocking pink being, most suitably, the dominant colour.
Pleasure received its world première at the Howard Assembly Room at Opera North, Leeds, on 28th April 2016 and was devised as part of the Jerwood Opera Writing Programme at Aldeburgh Music. Further performances: Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith – Thursday 12th to Saturday 14th May (7.30pm) / lyric.co.uk
Tony Cooper has been working across the field of publishing and the arts for a great number of years writing mainly for Archant newspaper group based in his home city of Norwich. Nowadays, he focuses more on opera and classical music and he greatly admires the works of Richard Strauss and Wagner