Excellent Singing But The Virtue of Things Promises More Than It Delivers

United StatesUnited States Rogers,  The Virtues of Things: Soloists, Aurora Orchestra/Richard Baker (conductor), Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 2.5.2015 (CC)

David Stout: Selby de Selby
Fiona Kimm: Ellipsis de Selby
Robyn Allegra Parton: Peg de Selby
Paul Curievici: Eames
Richard Mosley-Evans: Doctor Gravid

Productions at the Linbury can be variable but are rarely less than stimulating.  British composer Matt Rogers’ and librettist Sally O’Reilly’s opera The Virtues of Things is a perfect case in point: an exploration of meaning in theatre (particularly props), and of how operas can unroll their tales, it promises more than it delivers. Matt Rogers is also known as “Gameshow Outpatient” (see his website) writes for a small ensemble

Interestingly, Rogers refers to The Virtues of Things representing the “spirit of fuzzy logic”, while librettist O’Reilly refers to this opera as having a “high metabolic rate”. Both seem to be true, particularly the latter. The story is of a prop-making business  (the De Selby family’s). Unfortunately one of their senior designers, Parabola, has fallen ill and so a freelancer has been brought in, the non-traditionalist Eames. The other senior designer is Ellipsis (as eccentric as her name, it turns out) and as the factions clash, Ellipsis is taken ill: a hereditary ailment which means fictions may be mistaken for reality. A doctor (Gravid) orders Eames out into Nature to gather ingredients for a folk-remedy. Add to this sections of fictional operas within an already fictional scenario (shades of the play within a play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream?) and the result is actually a fertile plot which at times shows symptoms of the Great British Farce while at the same time asking semiotics-based questions of real significance. The entire story takes place in the De Selby’s workshop. Designs by Giles Cadle are perfect, enabling the functional to morph into, in the final stages, the magical (aided in those final scenes by Matt Hoskins’ excellent lighting). Bijan Sheibani directs with aplomb, and a real feel for the farcical elements (the programme booklet incidentally tells us “he will direct Nothing for Glyndebourne in 2016” – thank goodness for italics).

Would that the finished product lived up to the promise. The writing, both libretto and music, is, to say the least, busy. The trajectory of the opera is “from wellness to illness, from order to disorder” (from the composer’s note) but only sporadically does one hear and feel this journey, although visually it is certainly in one’s face. Rogers’ scoring for his chamber ensemble is ever transparent, but that does not stop it being fussy, and there is throughout the feeling that Rogers had to cram in the words: there are few spaces where the music soars, or that singers can let a long legato line fly.

It is even more of a shame when one considers the excellence of the singers Rogers and O’Reilly had in their cast. Fiona Kimm’s deliciously dotty Ellipsis is one highlight (and she has all the vocal equipment for the role’s wide range, from contralto to soprano). She would have been the highlight, if it were not Robyn Allegra Parton’s Peg absolutely show-stealing Peg. Bright, young and blessed with a voice of superb purity (and a great sense of pitch), plus a palpable stage presence, she is a talent to be watched. Paul Curievici is eminently believable as the maverick Eames, and David Stout is dependable as Selby de Selby. Finally, a great piece of character acting as well as singing by Richard Mosley-Evans as Doctor Gravid.

Examinations of the nature opera via the medium of opera can be illuminating (one thinks of the meditation on the relationship of music and word in Richard Strauss’ Capriccio), and would that this were one of them. The synopsis promises more than is delivered, a great shame, especially given the quality of the performers at the disposal of the composer and librettist.

A co-commission between the Royal Opera, Opera North and Aldeburgh Music, there are three performances at the Linbury (the final on May 6), then the production moves to the Britten Studio in Snape (May 9) and finally to the Howard Assembly Room (Opera North) on May 15.


Colin Clarke