Love Counts [UK premiere]
Patsy Blair Andrew Slater
Avril Ainger Helen Williams
Lindsay Posner Director
Peter McKintosh Designer
Lighting Designer Neil Austin
Sound Designer Ian Dearden (Sound Intermedia)
Reviewed by: Jeremy Sheppard
Reviewed: 14 July, 2006
Venue: Almeida Theatre, Islington, London
In “Love Counts”, Michael Nyman and Michael Hastings team up for the second time, with Hastings drawing on vivid personal accounts to produce a fine script, in turns affecting, humorous and clever.
Written for two characters, the opera focuses on the developing relationship between middleweight fighter Patsy Blair and mathematics lecturer Avril Ainger. The two meet in a London park, Blair’s physical power covering an inability to read numbers or look after himself properly. Ainger nurses some very different wounds, from a failed marriage, but is on hand to help the boxer address his problem, the audience prompted by numbers in strip lighting above the stage that are illuminated with greater relevancy as the story progresses.
From the outset it becomes clear Nyman’s music will be relatively taut, shedding the relative excesses demanded in some of his Hollywood music, and the scoring for chamber ensemble brings the melodic threads to the front with greater clarity as a result. Where the music narrowly fails to move on to the next level is in a relative lack of melodic development, the material remaining static. This means that shifts of mood and/or instrumentation are less dramatic signposts as they might be in the hands of Steve Reich or John Adams.
The stars of the show are the two singers, and in particular Helen Williams, whose tone quality is remarkably pure, her words conveyed with great clarity. She catches Avril’s emotions and character effortlessly and, when required, projects her voice to the very back row of the theatre. Andrew Slater also performs extremely well, though has a harder time of it due to Nyman’s melodic material. Within seconds of the music opening Slater is right down in the lower register, a tricky task so soon and especially when shadowed by a double bass that shows up any tuning idiosyncrasies. Slater’s biggest victory is in his portrayal of the physically wounded fighter, the long-term damage of his bouts all too evident in a glazed eye here, a slightly slurred speech there.
The instrumental ensemble is outstanding, conducted with verve by Paul McGrath. Even on the rare occasion when the textures become muddy the instrumentalists prove themselves able to unwind the melodic threads, although Nyman’s chirpy writing for bassoon can at times prove a little irritating in context.
The opera’s first act is excellent and maintains a good pace, urgent and involving. Sadly, after the interval, the momentum drops considerably, though just as the script is on the verge of becoming predictable Hastings drops in a neat twist. The breaks between scenes, however, become less defined and more fragmented, confusing the overall time-line on occasion. The ending works well, though, but it is asking too much for a full recovery.
That said, there are many good things to commend this production – first class performances, and music from Nyman that is among his best in recent years.