Saturday, 8 September 2018

The Second Violinist at the Barbican, or, A Strange Reluctance to Set the Text

The day after this performance I was booked to see the ENO production of Britten's Paul Bunyan at Wilton's Music Hall. After this performance I expected an interesting juxtaposition. It often seems to be questioned whether Paul Bunyan with its unseen, non-singing narrator and sequence of numbers rather than through composition is an opera. Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh's The Second Violinist is described as "a new opera" in the programme, but the limited amount of actual singing seems to me to raise questions.

I previously encountered this pairing in their first opera The Last Hotel, performed at the EIF in 2015, and about which I had reservations. Overall I got more out of this second attempt, but it remains flawed - particularly in terms of really engaging me emotionally - a familiar problem for recent new operas I've seen (Ades's Exterminating Angel was a notable exception).



The best aspect of this show are the performances by cast and orchestra, all of whom are working to a very high standard. Aaron Monaghan in the pretty nearly silent role of Martin (the second violinist of the title) does his very best to bring the character to life. The trio of singers Maire Flavin (Hannah), Benedict Nelson (Matthew) and Sharon Carty (Amy) are all on fine form. Walsh and Dennehy are at their best in several of the reflective solos - which do afford these characters some depth. The sequence in which Amy recalls shedding a borrowed dress in the dawn light of a return home from a student night out brings the experience vividly to life - it's also a moment that benefits from a rare willingness of Walsh and Dennehy to venture into duet territory. Elsewhere, though, the text and narrative fail to tell us enough - Matthew's recollections of the wedding have a potential similar to the dress moment but are weakened, not by Nelson's performance, but because the work never gives enough to explain why these two ever got together, or what exactly Matthew's opaque dark secret is. The singers are supported by some beautiful work by the chorus - whose meditative interventions delivered mostly from the side of the stage are often haunting, though I began to wonder how much was Dennehy and how much Gesualdo (there's a whole sub-text link to the Renaissance composer). In the pit the Crash Ensemble are on similarly fine form. On the podium Ryan McAdams expertly holds everything together, and does his best to give this somewhat disjointed score forward dramatic momentum.

Production-wise things are more mixed. Walsh directs, and has chosen to make less of a distinction between pit and stage than is possible in this space (it seems to me the two worlds were more distinct in Turnage's recent Coraline). Around the central pit various rooms are constructed on small trucks including bathroom, shower cubicle, bedroom, two seats indicating train or bus, and a small travelator to simulate walking. On the immediate back wall text messages and the inevitable projections (Jack Phelan) are displayed while above is what appears to be a forest - that the forest turns out to be reachable by the kind of ladder more usually used to get into attics is another confusion. This world, overall for me, remained just a bit too fragmented to be fully dramatically convincing.

And finally we come to the work itself which is where the problems lie. There are two of these - firstly, the narrative and characterisations and, secondly, the decision about how much singing to actually include. The narrative was evidently fairly confusing for some (I met the next door neighbours afterwards who fell into this category). I began with the theory that the three singers were the characters in Martin's projected opera, brought to life by his fevered brain. By the end of the show I'd decided that in fact Martin was effectively reliving his past, and that Matthew was his double. But the confusion is never wholly lifted - not least because the doubling is not consistent - we see Martin directly reliving some things - for example apparently showering himself after the murder - one might also question whether that nudity was really dramatically necessary - and burying the bodies, sorry spoiler. Then there are the issues of characterisation. These particularly arise in relation to the portrayal of women - as already mentioned I never found that clue that explains how Amy has ended up marrying the increasingly questionable Matthew. More serious was the willingness of Kimani Arthur's Scarlett to agree to meet Martin (a man as far as we know she has only texted and chatted with on-line) alone in a wood in the evening to play Gesualdo - this just did not strike me as convincing (not least because the tone of some of those texts suggested to me that anyone on the receiving end ought to be running). It's also confusing that when Martin is texting Scarlett earlier on it appears as if he's in communication with a statuesque white woman in a red dress, but that the actual Scarlett turns out to be a shorter black woman. I presume the production was trying to make some comment on Martin's prejudices and delusions, and perhaps our assumptions as a typically largely white opera audience - but it ends up feeling muddled, and given that nearly all the performers (possibly all) with musical work to do are white, verging on the tokenistic. 

[Addendum: Conductor Ryan McAdams contacted me on twitter after I wrote this about the casting and character of Scarlett. I hope I'm reproducing this correctly as I can't now seem to see the relevant tweets. The first point was that Scarlett was performed by a white actress in Dublin, so the matter of race seems to be purely a chance of casting rather than any more complex factors. The second point was that apparently Scarlett is supposed to be a fairly young teenager (I think the original tweet may have said 13 or 14) and hence more naive which would better explain her decision to meet Martin in the woods. This certainly would make more sense of that particular plot point, I'll only note that that intended age didn't get across to me in the performance. I'm grateful however to have had these further points brought to my attention.]

The overall effect of these issues was that these characters never became consistently emotionally real for me - the work just didn't make me care enough.

A further problem is a lack of dramatic tension - matters are confused, but violence is so obviously anticipated almost from the beginning that one feels little surprise when it actually happens - and in fact we don't actually, I think, see the murders. The use of the wildlife film and the violent samurai video game, not to mention the large knife Amy at one point brandishes, all overdo the point. Combine the fact that Martin is portrayed as a miserable loner with suppressed violent tendencies from the outset with the failure to sufficiently get at how this came to be the case and the failure to get at how Amy came to marry him and we're back to that failure to engage the emotions.

The other issue is one of genre. I love both musicals and operas, and works that I sometimes think of as plays with songs, but I'm not at all sure really what this is trying to be. As noted at the outset it claims to be an opera, but I've seen one estimate that suggests that less than half the show is actually sung. There's an awful lot of spoken text, or text which is just projected, alongside sections when the only musical accompaniment is in danger of tipping over into minimalist inflected background music. Dennehy also shies away from duets or ensembles - though the evidence of their limited presence suggests more would have enriched the work. The frustrating thing is that, as noted, there are some beautiful marriages of text and music which conjure memories in the listener's mind which wouldn't have the same effect just spoken. It almost seemed to me like a lack of faith in the form, or a lack of trust in his own abilities - why not set the textual exchanges between Martin and Scarlett, why not double Martin with two singers, could you not get the comedy of the organiser of the Killruddery(?) drama society through sung interventions? There is potential for a fine opera musically here (I have more doubts about Walsh's contribution), but it is not sufficiently realised.

In sum, this was an interesting but flawed show. One performance remains at the Barbican tonight. Worth catching there, or if it tours further nearer you.

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