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Reviews

<em>The Second Violinist</em> by Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh, Barbican Theatre, 6th September 2018
09 Sep 2018

Landmark Productions and Irish National Opera present The Second Violinist

Renaissance madrigals and twentieth-century social media don’t at first seem likely bed-fellows. However, Martin - the protagonist of The Second Violinist, a new opera by composer Donnacha Dennehy and librettist Enda Walsh - is, like the late sixteenth-century composer, Carlo Gesualdo, an artist with homicidal tendencies. And, Dennehy and Walsh bring music, madness and murder together in a Nordic noir thriller that has more than a touch of Stringbergian psychological anxiety, analysis and antagonism.

The Second Violinist by Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh, Barbican Theatre, 6th September 2018

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Aaron Monaghan (Martin)

Photo credit: Patrick Redmond

 

A chamber opera lasting 75 minutes, The Second Violinist is Dennehy and Walsh’s second operatic collaboration. The first, The Last Hotel, was driven by an ominous meeting and the shadow of death and these elements seem to be becoming trademarks: The Second Violinist lays bare Martin’s suffering soul, loneliness and introspective journeys into surreal and violent worlds, but leaves identity and narrative shrouded in mystery. The opera was first presented by Landmark Productions and Irish National Opera at the Galway International Arts Festival on 27th July 2017 and now the production, which won the Fedora Generali prize for opera and the Best Opera award at the Irish Times Theatre Awards, has travelled to London where the UK premiere opened the new Barbican Centre season this week.

Designer Jamie Varton’s set is dominated by an imposing cinematic interface which stretches across the central section of the wide Barbican Theatre stage. A prefatory statement sets the tone: “Beauty, since you are leaving, as you take my heart, take its suffering too.” As the drama unfolds, the screen flashes hyperactively with the images which storm Martin’s tensely clutched smartphone - thumped-out text messages, pizza delivery promotions, dating agency updates and the like, alongside the insta-snaps taken by Martin - literally a mute musician (Aaron Monaghan takes the silent role), and fictionally a violinist disenchanted with his vocation (and with his instrument if the way he bashes his fiddle about is anything to judge by) - which document his daily travels, routines and miseries.

On Tinder Martin lists his interests as Gesualdo, Masterchef and Ireland Birdwatch - swallows, and their freedom, become a recurring visual and psychological motif - but this cine-world also reveals his obsessions. And, they err on the violent side: Japanese samurai video-game slaughter, safari slayings in which lionesses sink their teeth tenaciously into wildebeests’ necks, and Carlo Gesualdo, that murderous melancholic madrigalist and madman, who, with impunity, killed his wife - Maria D’Avalos, daughter of the Prince of Montesarchio - when he learned of her sexual betrayal. As Martin’s texts unfold before us, video designer Jack Phelan plays a slick trick by back-tracking when Martin describes his occupation as “violen-”, rapidly substituting “violinist”.

The fourteen-strong Crash Ensemble, dynamically conducted by Ryan McAdams, are placed in a sunken orchestral pit, out of which the eponymous protagonist climbs onto a stage which presents a medley of the domestic and the potentially dangerous. Stage-right a lavatory and working shower are apportioned; mid-stage rests a crumpled bed; stage-left houses a kitchen with a large refrigerator from which dangles a miniature violin. In the centre of all is a turning treadmill, suggestive of the passing of time but also - when Martin mounts it, his stare unflinching, slightly unhinged - of his controlling fixations. Up above, accessed by a trapdoor ladder, grows a grim, Brothers Grimm-style forest: a leaf-less, post-apocalypse landscape.

These are evocative and suggestive visual images, but there is simply too much paraphernalia, too widely dispersed. At least when one is watching a tennis match, one’s swinging gaze is following the ball, but here it was impossible to find a focus or keep track of what was going on in the visual margins - and what made it more frustrating was that quick glances left to right and back again suggested that that usually that wasn’t much of import: the pouring of a glass of wine, the sending of a text message.

Sharon Carty.jpgSharon Carty (Amy). Photo Credit: Patrick Redmond.

Walsh’s characters are desperately in need of Forster’s psychological wisdom, ‘only connect’. A recent romantic rift has left Martin heartbroken and emotionally scarred. At first he tells his Tinder correspondent, Scarlett, that he is a “Violinist in a musical ensemble!” but as his hope of potential romance grows he indulges in grandiose wish-fulfilment: he is actually a “Composer of operas”. His favourite Gesualdo madrigal is ‘Già piansi nel dolore’, with its uplifting sentiments, “Once I wept with sorrow, now my heart rejoices, because my lover has said: ‘I too burn for you.’” But, reality bites, and Martin’s identity sinks to simply “Living” and “Alone”.

Amy (Sharon Carty) and Matthew (Benedict Nelson) are in the throes of matrimonial disintegration. Obsession once again rears its ugly head: Amy’s enthusiasm for interior re-decoration is becoming a pathological compulsion. At least the walls are light grey, not dark, for this would be like living in a graveyard, quips Matthew. The characters have an alarming propensity to furtively flourish knives, and the arrival of Hannah, Amy’s old college friend, Hannah (Máire Flavin), sharpens the blade-point further.

As passions are remembered and re-ignited, rivalries and conflicts escalate. Not surprisingly violence erupts, and it’s the two women - themselves former lovers, perhaps? - who bear the brunt. But, is the perpetrator Martin, or Michael? The hands of both drip with viscous blood and Martin’s excoriating scrubbing in the shower surely leaves few layers of his skin intact. Are Martin and Matthew the same person? Have we travelled back in time to the moment of Martin’s abandonment?

Benedict  Nelson.jpgBenedict Nelson (Matthew). Photo Credit: Patrick Redmond.

The Second Violinist poses potentially intriguing questions and the melange of media could be dynamic. But I wasn’t convinced that Dennehy and Walsh have really made voice, music, word, design, image and movement combine and cohere, in such a way that each element in the hybrid form plays its part in the relation of narrative, emotion and meaning. There’s not actually much singing in The Second Violinist: the titular character is silent and, a quasi-film score, the music more frequently seems simply to illustrate images - the stabbing underpinning of punched out chat-room chat-ups, for example - rather than to forward the emotional and narrative trajectory. The characters’ stage movements often feel directionless; it’s not clear, for example, what purpose is served when the sixteen singers of the chorus move, half-way through, from one side of the stage to the other. Walsh’s text is rather banal: perhaps that’s the point - that the tragedy is the banality?

While Dennehy’s score does incorporate some tensely frenetic music - particularly for the strings - as well as quieter reflections, it is the madrigal-esque choral commentaries that are the musical highpoint, though these choric interjections are not assimilated into a musico-dramatic continuum. The chromatic contortions and disconcerting lurches between distantly related harmonies encapsulate both the characters’ pained alienation and the drama’s unstable psychological ambiguities - though repetition of the devise brought the sense that my sentiments were being manipulated: dissonance and disjuncture seem somewhat facile intimations of dysfunctional psychopathy.

The solo roles were performed with uniformly intense commitment and focus, but there is little differentiation of character in Dennehy’s vocal writing. Both Carty and Flavin crafted their melodic lines with clarity and focused tone, but their diction was weak. Nelson projected strongly, but the presence that the singer brings to the stage felt under-used and the characterisation of Matthew under-developed. And, despite the tension generated by the unanswered questions, there was a countering static quality. Every fibre of Aaron Monaghan’s face and fibre screamed with Martin’s pain but given that’s how he starts there’s not really anywhere to go.

If you like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train then you’ll probably love The Second Violinist - certainly the Barbican Theatre audience were enthusiastic in their reception. When Scarlett (Kimani Arthur) eventually meets Martin, we fear it’s not so much for a casual stroll in the countryside as for a risky venture ‘Into the Woods’, with Bluebeard as an escort. Gesualdo got away with murdering his wife in flagrante. Will Martin/Matthew? The trouble is, I’m not sure that I really cared.

Claire Seymour

Donnacha Dennehy: The Second Violinist (libretto by Enda Walsh)

Martin - Aaron Monaghan, Hannah - Máire Flavin, Amy - Sharon Carty, Matthew - Benedict Nelson, Scarlett - Kimani Arthur; Director - Enda Walsh, Conductor - Ryan McAdams, Designer - Jamie Varton, Lighting designer - Adam Silverman, Video designer - Jack Phelan, Sound designers - David Sheppard and Helen Atkinson, Costume designer - Joan O’Clery, Crash Ensemble, Chorus.

Barbican Theatre, London; Thursday 6th September 2018.

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