The Virtues of Things

performed in the Linbury just a few months ago, was a case in point; so, I
think, was The Virtues of Things. The former work is highly
plot-driven, more after the manner of a television drama than we tend to
expect.; this is somewhat different, a welcome stab at a contemporary operatic
comedy, but one whose words, by Sally O’Reilly, seem to get in the way of
musical setting, which in turn, or perhaps even fundamentally, never seems able
to free itself enough of those words. Maybe I am hopelessly outdated in
thinking that a libretto should provide space for music and not attempt too
much on its own, but this opera seems to offer some confirmation. The
relationship between Wort and Ton has, of course, been the
concern of many a treatise, and indeed a good few operas, but this work in
three short acts, about eighty minutes in total, seemed rather too lengthy for
its material. Capriccio it is not. I could not help but wonder whether
it might have been better at about half the length, paired with another,
contrasting work, as happened last year, in the first such collaboration
between the Royal Opera, Aldeburgh, and Opera North: The
and CafÈ Kafka

2776 TVOT; FIONA KIMM AS ELLIPSIS, PAUL CURIEVICI AS EAMES, RICHARD MOSLEY-EVANS AS DOCTOR GRAVID.pngFiona Kimm as Ellipsis, Paul Curievici as Eames, and Richard Mosley-Evans as Doctor Gravid

A traditionalist prop-making company, the de Selby family Business, is
imperilled by illness, Parabola having fallen ill (the same illness will soon
strike the other senior designer, Ellipsis), and then by the visit of a
technologically-minded freelance replacement, Eames. There are some interesting
enough observations upon the nature of stagecraft; should one, for instance,
start with something naturalistic and generalise, or the other way around? But
the thrust eventually seems to concern significance, in a more or less
semiological sense. Ellipsis — yes, the clue, it would seem, lies in the name
– reacts in absurdly strong fashion to the props and their meaning.
Increasingly, the family seems incapable of distinguishing between art and
reality, snatches of different operas on which it has worked appearing and
taking over, until all fall down — and a bemused Eames departs.

The problem, as hinted above, seems to be that there is little space left
for music, or at least that little space is created by it. Matt Rogers’s
score is perhaps at its strongest in the broader distinctions it offers, the
quasi-bureaucratic tidiness of the first act gradually disintegrating in
parallel to the family’s minds. Instrumentation — string quintet and wind
quintet — puts one in mind of an ensemble approaching, although not quite
reaching, that of, say, Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, and indeed, in
the excellence of performance offered by the Aurora Orchestra and Richard
Baker, there is something of that brilliance. Was that a deliberate nod towards
Schoenberg’s score in the first act, when ‘complexity’ was discussed; or
was it just my imagination? I am genuinely not sure, though I was intrigued by
the thought itself and by the ambiguity of my response. Otherwise, however, the
setting remains, at least for my taste, a little too closely tied to the needs
of the words, rarely if ever breaking free and thus offering the prospect of
higher conflict and/or integration. It is difficult, moreover, to perceive
anything much in the way of affection or consideration for voices. Again, the
words, it seems, take precedence.

4737 TVOT; FIONA KIMM AS ELLIPSIS, ROBYN ALLEGRA PARTON AS PEG, DAVID STOUT AS SELBY, PAUL CURIEVICI AS EAMES.pngFiona Kimm as Ellipsis, Robyn Allegra Parton as Peg, David Stout as Selby, and Paul Curievici as Eames

Within the frame of Bijan Sheibani’s sharp direction and Giles Cadle’s
designs — an excellent, properly naturalistic workshop, transformed by the
action and, at the end, by Matt Haskins’s striking lighting of the opera,
The Virtues of Things — the cast did an excellent job. David
Stout’s steadfast, honourable traditionalist and Fiona Kimm’s increasingly
unhinged, often scene-stealing Ellipsis vied against Paul Curievici’s
splendid stage and vocal presence, Robyn Allegra Parton’s often-high yet
sometimes challengingly low soprano veering towards the youthful attractions of
the latter, at least earlier on. Richard Mosley-Evans’s quack doctor did a
fine turn too. Diction was excellent throughout. I simply wish there had been
more of interest in the vocal and indeed in much of the instrumental writing.

Further performances will take place at the Linbury (5. 6 May), the Britten
Studio, Snape (9 May), and the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds (15 May).

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Selby de Selby: David Stout; Ellipsis de Selby: Fiona Kimm; Peg de
Selby: Robyn Allegra Parton; Eames: Paul Curievici; Dr Gravid: Richard
Mosley-Evans. Director: Bihan Sheibani; Designs: Giles Cadle; Lighting: Matt
Haskins. Aurora Orchestra/Richard Baker (conductor). Linbury Studio Theatre,
Royal Opera House, London, Saturday 2 May 2015.

image_description=Robyn Allegra Parton as Peg [Photo © ROH. Photo By Stephen Cummiskey]
product_title=Matt Rogers: The Virtues of Things (world premiere)
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Robyn Allegra Parton as Peg

Photos © ROH. Photo By Stephen Cummiskey.