More Than Opera: Pieces of Margery

More Than OperaAs brief or intermittent as the they can be, there are those satisfying, even rapturous moments when “Everything’s as it should be.” That sentiment and concept of perfection echoes in the opening of Pieces of Margery – short lived, however, when life is dealt a crushing curveball. 

In a new operatic work by composer May Lyon to a libretto by Lyon and Julia Vogel, Pieces of Margery builds a story around an aging woman’s confrontation and battle with a diagnosis of dementia, of the challenges faced in navigating it and the rippling effects on the people around her.

Presented by Melbourne’s More Than Opera in a premiere one-off concert performance, across 80 absorbing minutes, Lyon and Vogel’s work resonates deeply.

The statistics are brutal. The likelihood is high of having or having had a loved one afflicted by dementia, based on the estimation that more than 400,000 Australians live with it. Nearly two-thirds of those affected are women, of whom our Margery represents one.

Pieces of Margery is powerful in its directness and touching in its portrayal of dementia’s cruel and invasive nature. Broken down into eight scenes, the work is scored for a small chamber orchestra. The music deftly charges the narrative, with a particularly notable wealth of evocative and potent strings and inventive use of percussion – even including shakes of a cellophane pom-pom (perhaps there’s a more specific term for it). 

Beginning and ending on a walk to and from a local favourite cafe, separated by countless testing months in between, Lyon and Vogel have created a neatly bookended composition infused with rapid changes of mood and thought-provoking energy. 

Margery Rey (Juel Riggall) is smart, headstrong and self assured with inclinations of always having to be right – a quality matched by the perfection seen in the pearls she proudly wears around her neck.

She’s happily married to Leonard (Christopher Tonkin) – a fit, well-preserved man not quite ready for the shock ahead of him. They have two adult children, Ellie (Lisette Bolton) and Frank (Matthew O’Leary) and are supported by their golf-loving doctor and friend, Dr Matthew Briggs (Adrian Tamburini).

Margery and Leonard clearly enjoy the rewards of their socio-economic status but privileges pale against Margery’s battle with herself and the forced, gradual onset of dementia. For Margery, and for many, to be the best version of herself means masking moments of forgetfulness and God forbid anyone having pity on her. 

Mood is quick to change in May’s sound world of picture-building seduction. Musically, a sparking, restless and penetrating dissonance cleverly accompanies Margery’s personal nightmare against the often spare, ponderous music underpinning Leonard’s own fears, heartache and grief. Three exceptionally moving arias demonstrate that.

While Lyon and Vogel bring many poignant snapshots to the table, injections of light-hearted touches temper the work endearingly, perhaps none more so than a great operatic burst of “Coffee” to really capture our obsession with the drug – perhaps symbolic of the little things that make life perfect, if only for a fleeting moment. 

Margery can only hope that such moments aren’t swallowed entirely by dementia’s effects. And while there are no answers to dementia’s incurable condition, Lyon and Vogel emphasise the importance of how genuine love and support give dignity to those affected.

The one baffling aspect is the sometimes spoken narration of scenes by Bolton which, apart from the first brief opening words, gives it a sense of being unfinished. Nevertheless, in front of an audience of around 200, the work was realised with glowing performances and sung with intense consideration and welcome subtle exchanges between the singers.  

Riggall employed her richly detailed and succulent mezzo-soprano superbly in crafting a beautiful, multi-dimensional persona of Margery. 

As Leonard, Tonkin flexed his handsomely burnished and muscular baritone in a great assortment of dynamic touches, including meeting the score’s demands with an especially impressive and unforgettably soul-stirring, paper-thin falsetto.  

Tamburini’s impactful stage presence and firm and authoritative bass-baritone perfectly suited the coercive Dr Briggs while Bolton and O’Leary added peripheral vocal highlights not only as Ellie and Frank but as patient cafe owner Kala and her quirky assistant Tom. 

Centre-stage, conductor Patrick Burns steered the work with palpable feeling and his 11 musicians obliged in fine form led by excellent first violinist Kyla Matsuura Miller. 

Lyon and Vogel, along with More Than Opera, are to be commended for realising an operatic work focussed on a social issue that affects so many. It would be sad if this one-off concert performance never saw the light of day in a fully or even semi-staged production.

Pieces of Margery
Lithuanian Club, 44 Errol Street, North Melbourne
Performance: Saturday 15 June 2024

Review: Paul Selar