From Crisis to Combustion

Daring performances in ‘The Second Violinist’, a new opera by Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh premiered at the Galway International Arts Festival, explore a range of personal and musical crises, writes Toner Quinn.

Where does it all go wrong for musicians? How do they get to the stage where they waste their gifts? For those who are close to them it can be perplexing, but musicians and composers naturally carry a large bag of insecurities. One slight jolt can change everything.

The range of devastating possibilities that can haunt musicians werehinted at in the opening of the 70-minute The Second Violinist (GIAF, 29 July), and I curled in my seat as I wondered if the creators were going to attempt to explore these very complex, personal questions.

Martin (Aaron Monaghan), a second violinist who is drinking too much, and – we learn through phone-messages – not practising and avoiding personal and professional obligations, charges around the stage ominously for the first part of the opera without saying a word. We sense a crisis building and it’s compelling. But what is causing it? Music appears central – this is cemented when Gesualdo is mentioned later in a text-message conversation with a new love interest. His colleagues hope he is practising; he is updating his Tinder profile; Angela Boyle from the Kilruddy Dramatic Players is calling him with a nice gig; so is his agent; he gets regular messages from a pizza parlour which tend to tip him over. His behavior is erratic, intense – artistic.

Then, three more characters enter his living room. Suddenly, Martin is a spectator, watching them invisibly, and the new entrants begin to tell their own story. The opera turns to an exploration of crises in relationships rather than music. Amy (Sharon Carty), who is in a relatively new marriage with Matthew (Benedict Nelson), has Hannah (Máire Flavin), an old friend, drop by. ‘I love to drink’, she says, and the three begin to get drunk, order pizza, have late-night heart-to-hearts and flirt. With cracking performances from all three, the opera begins an ascent towards their own drunken combustion, when Matthew and Amy have a fight, and events spiral out of control with Hannah. Meanwhile, Martin’s story is overlapping, becoming more and more intense, but the creators have reset it. It is no longer about music, but about his generally disastrous and selfish ennui.

The move towards an exploration of musical questions is disappointingly set aside – a personal psychological crisis or a crisis in a relationship is not the same as a crisis in one’s music  – but the story of the threesome quickly becomes rather compelling in itself and we hardly have time to dwell on what the opera is not doing. In its multi-layered, criss-crossingferment of several personal and professional plights at once, we have no time to lament anything. We are not sure if the dialogue between the three is Martin’s flashback or a concurrent event, and that doesn’t really become entirely clear later.

Dennehy’s exciting, complex score, becoming ever more frantic as the plot develops, is played by a 14-piece Crash Ensemble with 16-voice choir, conducted with total authority by Ryan McAdams. It has the dark matter of his Grá agus Bás (2007) and the mischievous, prickly anxiety of his astonishing piano trio Bulb (2006). TheSecond Violinist is darker still, distinct for the spread of its harmonic language – tar-like chords in the middle; chalk-on-blackboard clusters of syncopated notes in the upper register; punctuated by outlying notes further out at the very top of an instrument’s range (violinist Cora Venus Lunny and flautist Susan Doyle spring to attention here), while percussion and bass hold tight in the face of the constant, unpredictable activity at the other end.

Momentarily calmed
His writing for vocals in The Second Violinist regularly returns to the same interval, like a leitmotif, but singing is actually not constant in this opera. The choir appears intermittently and their parts correspond with the brooding chords played by Crash. Following the opera’s climax, Crash’s own second violinist (Courtney Orlando) beautifully performs a sweet, exorcised version of the main vocal phrase. The tension in the opera is momentarily calmed as the story takes a tragic turn. Some resolution for Martin comes later, where a new love interest and love of music combine, but not in as profound a way as one would wish after such a theatrical ride.

Walsh’s libretto is anarchic and inventive, yet resetting the musical theme early on for a tale of relationships, infidelity and sexuality meant a less original story. Music does return – Martin releases an Anthony Scaramucci-esque burst of expletives about art and mediocrity towards the end, but it descends into a low-art/high-art rant.

In The Second Violinist, the secrets of the musician’s pysche may remain uncovered, but Dennehy’s tremor-music – jagged like the markings on a seismograph – and Aaron Monaghan’s and Crash’s daring performances, linger in the mind.

The Second Violinist is produced by Landmark Productions and Wide Open Opera and will run at the Dublin Theatre Festival from 2 to 8 October.

Published in The Journal of Music on 8 August 2017

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