Last week’s The Cumnor Affair at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios represented the debut libretto from best-selling Oxfordshire novelist and historian Ian Pears (An Instance of the Fingerpost). This neat 80-minute drama tells of the two great loves of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester – for his wife, Amy Robsart (Amy Carson), and for his Queen, Elizabeth I – and of Robsart’s untimely and suspicious death in 1560, at Cumnor Place (long gone), near Oxford.

While Dudley (Andrew Rees) protests not only his innocence but also his enduring love for his wife, William Cecil (Robert Gildon) and Francis Walsingham (Roderick Earle) – men you wouldn’t want to cross individually, let alone together – use the whiff of scandal to destroy his standing at court. The whole is presided over by the Queen herself (Sibylla Meienberg), frozen in a ‘painting’ but, like those photos in hairdressers’ windows, nonetheless giving the distinct impression that she’s always looking straight at you. The audience, meanwhile, watches on through a gauzy window, giving an effective sense of being witnesses to intimate goings on.

All of which, well marshalled (by director Bill Bankes-Jones), with small numbers in a limited space, would have made a great little play – or indeed a painting, or a statue, or even a limerick. But Tête à Tête is an opera company; so what can you do?

The singing, for the record, is very good, though Carson is too quiet, even in a tiny theatre, even for the meekness of her character. Gildon and Earle are excellent. The ‘music’ is by Philip Cashian, head of composition at the Royal Academy. I suppose it’s only fair to a man of such exalted station to point out that this is his first stab at opera, too. Because it’s awful. It is basically without melody, which was bad enough when competing with the singers, and worse when not. I felt like I was being thrashed about the head with a sackful of cutlery, and quickly resorted to ignoring it altogether so I could concentrate on the action.

I felt deeply sorry for the musicians – orchestra and singers alike – who, as with so much contemporary music, had to work incredibly hard to perform accurately something which, from the audience’s point of view, they might as well have been making up on the spot.

At the curtain, I stayed seated just long enough to be sure it was over, and then rushed to the men’s room, where I stood by the shrieking hand-dryer and bathed my ears in a wave of acoustic bliss.