Opera Forward Festival 2019 Review: The Second Violinist
A Gripping Piece of Theater That Obsesses Over Carlo Gesualdo
By Alan Neilson
Although few people would now recognize his name, Carlo Gesualdo, was one of the most fascinating musicians of the Italian Renaissance.
Born into a rich noble family in 1566, he became increasingly obsessed with music over the course of his life, and is most famous for his colorful madrigals, which pushed at the limits of tonal music.
However, he is equally well-known for the way in which he lived his life, which even looking back from a distance of 400 years is both shocking and very disturbing, full of violence, obsessions and, of course, successive love affairs. He murdered his wife and her lover, and left their dead bodies on display, outside his castle; crimes for which he was never brought to account. It was also rumored, amongst other things, that he killed his father-in-law and one of his wife’s children, believing it to be that of her lover.
He later remarried, but that quickly deteriorated into a tortuous relationship, with his wife eventually trying to divorce him amid claims of cruelty and abuse. In later life he took to his castle from which he rarely reappeared, wracked with guilt and depression, and had his servants beat and whip him on a daily basis as punishment for his misspent life, passing his days studying and writing his madrigals, focused on death, beauty, pain and agony.
Clearly, a man of unchained passions, Gesualdo was in many ways the archetypical artist writ large; he was obsessive, extreme, passionate, violent and jealous.
He is also the man with whom Martin is obsessed, in Donnacha Dennehy’s award wining opera, “The Second Violinist,” which was performed by National Opera of Ireland at Amsterdam’s Opera Forward Festival.
As the overture draws to an end, Martin, the second violinist of the title, climbs from the orchestra pit and onto the stage, which is set out as an apartment, dominated by a long video screen, stretching the entire length of the set.
Clearly in an agitated state, which only worsens over the course of the opera, Martin goes about his daily routine. However, he is never able to relax, and continually focuses on texts messages, dating apps or video games. He full of nervous energy, addicted to pills and alcohol, his movements sharp and jerky, and reacts to outside stimuli, such as telephone calls, with suspicion, fear and even paranoia.
Then into the apartment arrive three people, Amy, her husband Matthew and her friend, Hannah. They play out a miserable drama in which it becomes clear that Amy and husband have serious marital problems. The addition of Hannah to the mix emphasizes the problem, as Amy is sidelined by Matthew and Hannah’s interest in each other. While they enjoy a game of Twister, Amy is left isolated, spinning the wheel.
However, it is Amy and Hannah who finally end up together. Unable to contain his rage Matthew stabs them both to death.
This was not an opera in the traditional form, nor does it have a neat linear narrative. Martin, the central character, and through whose eyes we watch the drama unfold, does not actually sing; in fact, he only utters a single word.
And what exactly is his relationship to Amy, Matthew and Hannah? Are they characters from an opera he is writing, and which he is visualizing? Or are Matthew and Martin the same character? Is Martin a representation of Matthew’s dark repressed side which eventually explodes, resulting in Amy and Hannah’s murders? Or is Martin looking backwards over his his past, in which he murdered Amy? Are we watching a pastiche of Martin’s memories mixed together with his fantasies at the mercy of his inner demons?
The answers are not made explicit, the audience is free to draw its own conclusions. And actually, the answer is not really the point of the work. What Dennehy and his librettist, Enda Walsh, have created is fragmented narrative in which its individual parts capture the anxieties of modern life, its relationship to social media, its enslavement to hedonism, the breakdown of relationships, the atomization of the self, alienation, and the subsequent pressures this has on the individual’s psyche.
Enda Walsh who also acted as the director, together with scenographer, Jamie Varton, and the video engineer, Jack Phelan, created a visually powerful, but disjointed presentation, very much in line with the narrative itself. A very long stage had two distinctive parts: on one level was the apartment, with the large video screen running along the back, while above was a performance space with dead trees.
The screen was used for projecting the messages, games, photos and videos which Martin was watching on his phone. Obviously, his videos and games contained large amounts of violence, although not exclusively so. The text message conversations were full of his anxieties. Together they created a picture of a deeply troubled, alienated and paranoid individual, who had lost touch with other people and with himself.
The length of the stage meant that the audience was unable to focus on the entire drama. They had to make choices: watch one part of the stage, and miss what was happening on the other side; read Martin’s text messages and miss what happens on the upper level of the set. It was an excellent idea, with the result that members of the audience gained different perspectives, and drew different conclusions as to what was taking place, thereby reflecting our own relationship to reality.
Joan O’Leary was responsible for what were neutral costumes, successfully allowing the drama to proceed without distraction. The lighting was designed by Adam Silverman, who also did an excellent job by balancing the bright video screen with a colouring that promoted the dark nature of the drama.
The cast was led by a fine performance from Aaron Monaghan in the non-singing role of Martin. He managed to capture the very disturbed mentality and troubled behavior of someone teetering on the edge. Always fidgeting, his eyes sometimes flitting between things, sometimes glaring, but never calmly set. Towards the end of the opera he climbs up to the dead trees to meet a young girl he has met on a dating app. She seemed open and suitably naïve; maybe she will become his next victim.
Lasting approximately 70 minutes, “The Second Violinist” does not allow much time for singing from the principals, especially, when the sections devoted to Martin and to the choral parts are subtracted. Nevertheless, strong, well-defined performances meant they were all successful in establishing their characters and in driving the narrative forward.
Amy’s husband, Matthew, (and possibly also Martin), played by Benedict Nelson, was physically completely different from Martin, thus adding to the ambiguity of the work. He gave a good outward portrayal of a typical husband, which he contrasted nicely with his disinterest in his wife, and his violent reaction to finding out she had a lover. Nelson’s warm baritone suited the part well, its attractive qualities skillfully hiding the darker underside of his nature.
Sharon Carty in the role of Amy was convincing as the increasingly unhappy wife, who seemingly unaware of her husband’s suppressed violent nature, watches on as her suburban life disintegrates around her, which is summed up in her aria, “The live we dreamed had pictures;” a reflection on aging and her broken dreams, in which her carefully moulded phrases and the clarity of her voice captured her forlorn hopes. Martin and Matthew watched on from different sides of the stage, no doubt interpreting her words in very different ways.
Hannah played by the soprano, Daire Halpin, had the lowest profile of the characters, but certainly made the most of it, with a well-paced and nicely sung performance. Her willingness to entertain Matthew’s advances, up to a point, but then switching to Amy suggested she too was drifting, lost in her own isolation.
Commentating From The Sides & Below
The 16 strong Irish National Opera Chorus, sometimes singing from the sides, sometimes from the center of the stage, was given some very energetic and engaging music, which they despatched with enthusiasm, and was cleverly used to change the intensity and pace of the drama.
The conductor, Killian Farrell, elicited an intense and vibrant sound from the The Crash Ensemble. Although a dense score with many discordant and angular passages, which splendidly constructed the dark atmosphere of the work, as well as helping to develop the disturbed psychological background of the characters, it was by no means an inaccessible piece, and in fact contained a number of calm, even sentimental interludes.
Farrell successfully shifted between the moods, bringing out the wonderful colours the score incorporates, and paid particular attention to the rhythmic variations and subtle changes in the pace of the music, ensuring the dramatic tension was never allowed to slacken for very long. Surprisingly, given the overwhelming darkness of the score it does possess passages of real beauty, and structurally holds together very well indeed.
Overall, this was theatre at its most insistent; it was both emotionally and intellectually gripping, overlaid with a thrilling story. It was also a work which spoke to the audience directly, for as human beings we all experience such emotional and psychologically difficult periods, if not to the extremes suffered by Martin and Matthew. Moreover, it was also a very modern work, engaging with the very modern problems generated by the development of social media, and their atomising and alienating effects.
And what of Carlo Gesualdo? Well, he actually holds the key to understanding the drama. Conflate the characters of Matthew and Martin and their story is in essence the same as Gesualdo’s: both are musicians, both have very dark sides to their natures, both murder their wives and their wives’ lover and then suffer from intense guilt and psychological damage from which they indulge in masochistic behavior. Matthew/Martin are, in fact, one person, separated by time.
Well maybe, but then again…
Originally appeared in Opera Wire, 13th February 2019. http://operawire.com/opera-for...