A brave move, pitching an opera’s opening nightagainst the first night of the Proms, but the UKpremiere of the second staged collaboration betweenMichael Nyman and playwright MichaelHastings justified the risk; a subtly inspiringevening.
Drawing on Hastings’ personal experience, thelibretto calls for only two characters Patsy Blair,a retired and out of condition middleweight boxer, andAvril Ainger, a university lecturer inmathematics.
The scene is set with the first occasion of thecouple’s meeting, with Blair (bass-baritone AndrewSlater) shadowboxing a tree. Avril (sopranoHelen Williams) rides past on her bike and,unable to comprehend such a sight, finds her curiosityaroused.
From then on a nicely paced first half draws on thedifferences between the two characters, invitingsympathy from the audience on both counts. Blairexhibits problems with numeracy, a direct result oftoo many punches to the brain, and Ainger is on handto provide help with the aid of visual clues, numbershung around the stage in strip lighting. This provesan extremely valuable audience diversion, and helps tosignpost key events.
Williams does well to capture the pain of Avril’sfailed marriage and the emotions stirred as Avrilbegins to feel affection for her new friend. Slater,meanwhile, catches the oafish nature of the boxer,often speaking before he thinks but possessingnonetheless a sensitive side.
Nyman’s music is key too, written for a chamberensemble augmented by piano and two keyboards, tautand precise in performance under conductor PaulMcGrath. A couple of memorable themes are broughtout of the first half, most notably at its climacticend, though Nyman could be judged a little unkind toSlater for such a low register entry at thebeginning.
Unfortunately after the interval the momentumstalls somewhat, the scenes frustratingly edited sothat the breaks between them become difficult tocomprehend. The ending has a neat twist however, theoccasionally humourous script with plenty to commendit throughout.
Performances are superb, Williams in particularprojecting with great clarity, her words audible evenwhen singing into Slater’s shoulder. The bass-baritoneis excellent also, handling the trickier melodies withtuning mostly intact, his speech inflected whenrequired for the role.
Not a wholehearted success, then, as the secondhalf could perhaps do with being a good ten minutesshorter, but nonetheless this is a contemporary operawith plenty to offer, and several thoughts toprovoke.