Love Counts, Almeida, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

The proscenium arch is framed by ropes as though for a boxing ring; neon-strip numbers hang in the foliage of a silver tree; a big, dumb hunk obsessively spars with its leaves, while a band plays in the background. Yes, the Michaels are at it again. Two years ago, in Man and Boy: Dada, the composer Michael Nyman and the playwright Michael Hastings harnessed their shared childhood obsession with bus tickets to a fantasy about loneliness, exile and the art of Kurt Schwitters. The resulting chamber opera was a quirky success.

For Love Counts, Hastings has drawn on his youthful experiences at a south London boxing club. Avril is a divorced maths lecturer whose ex-husband used to beat her up. She begins a romance with Patsy, an innumerate boxer. Avril is repelled by his job, but longs to heal his disability. The phrase "love counts" is the perfect conceit upon which to build this drama: Avril heals Patsy by having him count the number of times he can, as the libretto puts it, "stick it to her".

Nyman's music has mellowed of late. His score here is cast in the form of a series of "blocks" of music, each rich in cross-rhythms, based on a repeated figure, and keeping closely to the home key. Some blocks beat up the familiar Nyman frenzy, but others are grave and graceful. After their initial meeting in a park, Avril and Patsy repair to a bedroom. The copulation is sweet, candid, and notably unprurient. The telephone makes a euphonious addition to the accompanying 12-piece band.

The bass Andrew Slater and the soprano Helen Williams give heroic performances - Nyman now writes with real affection for the human voice. At those moments when Hastings' libretto becomes Blakean in its tender simplicity, the score faithfully follows. This marriage of words and music is a nice place to inhabit. But its limitations are exposed each time the Michaels seek to carry us off on a tidal wave of emotion - Rodgers and Hammerstein they're not. But Lindsay Posner's adroit production should assure their engaging and original opera a life beyond its current brief run.

To 23 July (020-7359 4404)

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