Donnacha Dennehy - The Second Violinist
Wide Open Opera, Dublin - 2017
Ryan McAdams, Enda Walsh, Aaron Monaghan, Máire Flavin, Sharon Carty, Benedict Nelson, Alyssa Hefferman
O'Reilly Theatre, Dublin - 2 October 2017
The core elements from The Last Hotel, the first opera composed by Donnacha Dennehy with playwright and director Enda Walsh, are still in place in their second collaboration, The Second Violinist. The Crash Ensemble are still there to navigate through Dennehy's Irish trad-influenced rhythms; there's a small cast of three singers (two female and one male) and a male actor; even the subject plays on a similar theme of death and desperation. In most other respects however, The Second Violinist expands the range and ambition of both writer and composer, finely adjusting the balance of the various operatic components to create a fuller and more accomplished piece of music theatre.
In one respect there appears to be a simplification or at least a greater refinement and precision in this work's dramatic focus. The Second Violinist really all centres around one man; Martin is a musician, a second violinist (obviously) who appears to be on the verge of a breakdown. He's almost ready for a visit to the Last Hotel, by the looks of it. Like the Woman in that piece, Martin is bombarded by messages on his phone; he gets calls from a local drama group looking for incidental music for a production of 'An Ideal Husband'; constant promotional texts from a pizza company; and angry recriminations from Martin's colleagues who aren't too impressed with his lack of preparation at the last rehearsal.
There's a reason for Martin's distraction, and the reason for it eventually becomes clear - or sort of clearish in a complicated, twisty, mobius loop kind of way. Exasperated and visibly at the end of his tether, Martin finds that the apartment where he lives alone has been taken over by phantoms who act out what at first appears to be a fairly ordinary domestic scene. Married couple Matthew and Amy are having an informal evening with Amy's friend Hannah, having a few glasses of wine and a pizza, but as the evening continues, things go a little awry, causing Matthew to consider how well he really knows the woman he has been married to for four (or is it five?) years.
Martin meanwhile tries to pull his life together, trying his best to ignore this phantom scene that is playing out simultaneously in his apartment, but not managing terribly successfully. The fact that he hasn't screamed or killed anyone yet (as far as we know), means however that he must be just about holding it together. What is keeping him from falling apart is an unexpected phone chat exchange with Scarlett, a viola playing musician who also shares his love for the Italian Renaissance composer, Carlo Gesualdo. The outcome of the fatal social evening however is closing in on Martin at the same time as he is starting to see light at the end of the tunnel.
Without getting too clever and self-referential - since the work's overlapping time-split narrative structure is complicated enough - The Second Violinist looks at life as an opera. Not in the familiar sense of musically-heightened dramatic melodrama, but in the sense of someone - a musician - who is looking for something that will bring a sense of structure, purpose and meaning to his life and put it into some kind of context. Carlo Gesualdo's life and music are an inspiration in this respect (as it has been for other modern composers, notably Salvatore Sciarrino's Luci mie traditrici and George Benjamin's Written on Skin); a tumultuous life with bloodshed and violence that nonetheless gave birth to music of indescribable beauty and poetry.
The Second Violinist consequently places greater demands on the role that the Crash Ensemble have to play under the direction of Ryan McAdams. There are still hints of Irish traditional music underpinning the score, but less of a single rhythmic pulse and a greater variety of tone in a work that has a more complex fractured dynamic with overlapping, contrasting sentiments to convey. It demands a different kind of virtuosity that doesn't rely on individual musicianship as much as a close collaboration of a custom ensemble working together to create that complex shifting sound world.
That's particularly important here because The Second Violinist is much more reliant on instrumental musical expression working with the dramatic narrative than the virtuosity of vocal expression that was rather more conventionally used in The Last Hotel. Sharon Carty, Benedict Nelson and Máire Flavin all handle their individual lyrical pieces well (less abstract than the pieces in The Last Hotel) and a chorus extend the chamber arrangements of the work considerably, but since we are viewing everything through the perspective of Martin, it would seem appropriate that it's Martin's view of life as an opera that is expressed mainly through the music, as well as in the silent intense performance of perpetual motion that actor Aaron Monaghan brings to the main role.
The superb set designs by Jamie Vartan and Enda Walsh's direction are just as vital to the expression and kinetic momentum that is established between the musical performance and the drama. As well as having two levels (woods/apartment) to represent different layers of Martin's psyche, the opera makes good widescreen CinemaScope use of the stage, where multiple events happen at the once or in quick succession but the focus of attention is always clear. The use of projections are also effective, with text messages and phone apps representing another important layer of everyday 'reality' that we can all recognise, not just Martin. Death, when it comes, does not bring the kind of dramatic resolution that we are accustomed to find in an opera; life and how we cope with it, as The Second Violinist shows in a fast and furious 75 minutes, is much more complicated than that.
Links: The Second Violinist, Wide Open Opera, Dublin Theatre Festival