Saturday 24 March 2018

Innovative opera hits high notes

Review: The Second Violinist, Opera, Galway Arts Festival

The Second Violinist
The Second Violinist

Katy Hayes

Composer Donnacha Dennehy and librettist/­director Enda Walsh have created this ambitious, sophisticated work for Landmark Productions and Wide Open Opera. The show contains many elements of a traditional opera: a dramatic overture, during which the lighting dances across the set; big solos for baritone, mezzo and ­soprano; choral set pieces with a 16-strong chorus and a dramatic climax to the action.

But in other ways it is highly innovative. The titular character, the Second Violinist, is a mime part. A widescreen video stretches across the back of the stage and some of the storytelling is accomplished there. We get a bit of a wildlife documentary, and other projected images. The songs are surtitled but an extra layer of textual fun is provided by way of communiqués on a dating app. The Second Violinist is pestered by special offers from a pizza company and there is much play with voice-mail messages, including a running gag about an amateur musical production of An Ideal Husband.

Jamie Vartan does a superb design job, Joan O'Clery's costumes are inspired and video-designer Jack Phelan makes a major contribution to this visually brilliant show. There is so much going on with story and concepts, that despite the Crash Ensemble orchestra being placed front and centre, and Dennehy's richly textured and highly dramatic compositions getting a terrific rendition, the score bizarrely ends up playing second fiddle.

Aaron Monaghan - who plays Martin, the second violinist - is physically eloquent. He is fascinated by Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, who features wife-killing in his curriculum vitae. Martin has possibly killed his own wife and he may be up to no good with his date. A strange coincidence that the other large-scale Irish première at this year's Galway International Arts Festival, Woyzeck in Winter, also featured wife-murdering as a plot device.

Alongside Martin on stage is an operatic love triangle: Matthew, sung by baritone Benedict Nelson; his wife Amy, mezzo-soprano Sharon Carty; and her old college friend Hannah, soprano Máire Flavin. All three sing beautifully. Matthew may be a manifestation of Martin's past, or he may be an everyman. There is much implied in the storytelling without things ever being definite.

My one criticism, and it's a big one, is that there is an emotional vacuum at the opera's core. Dennehy's compositions are dramatic; they build plenty of tension as the story progresses to its climax, but there is no emotional build. Who are the audience supposed to care about at the end? The whole creative enterprise, with its cerebral emphasis, doesn't seem to be interested in that question.

But the music is beautiful, and the storytelling is arresting. This has a huge amount to offer and should play well with a wide theatrical audience, beyond the committed opera crowd. It will play the Dublin Theatre Festival in October.

Book it now


Watergate Theatre, Kilkenny Arts Festival, Aug 12 & 13

A new production of Oscar Wilde’s great love letter written while in Reading Gaol. Performed by Stephen Rea with a score played live by the Irish Chamber Orchestra, composed by Neil Martin.


Gate Theatre, Dublin, Until Sept 16

This interactive, immersive stage version of F Scott Fitzgerald’s brilliant novel, adapted and directed by Alexander Wright, continues its summer run at the Gate. Dressing up in 1920s gear is all part of the fun.


Bewley’s Café Theatre, Dublin, Until Sept 9

A double bill of Tennessee Williams’ one-act plays directed by Bairbre Ní Chaoimh. These micro-dramas give insight into the great writer’s preoccupations and themes from early in his career.

When the devil has all the best lines

Review: Jimmy's Hall, Abbey Theatre

Graham McLaren directs his debut show as joint artistic director of the Abbey Theatre: a play with songs, adapted from Paul Laverty’s film script of a 2014 Ken Loach film. It tells the story of Jimmy Gralton from Leitrim who returned home from America in 1932 and set up a community hall where the locals could have dances and classes.

His gramophone, his jazz and his communist politics provoked the ire of the local IRA, the Catholic Church and the Blueshirts. Gralton was eventually deported on the spurious grounds that he had acquired American citizenship; the only Irishman to ever meet this fate.

The script is punctuated with songs, some traditional, some not. We get a blast of Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’. There is an agit-prop feel to the show, with pieces read out from various documents from the 1930s, including extracts from the Dance Hall Act and material about the proper length of women’s sleeves. We get black-and-white projections of footage from the Eucharistic Congress of 1932. There is also a recorded section of a Michael D Higgins speech from 2011.

The eclectic mix of songs are well handled by a vocally and musically gifted company. The choreography by movement director Vikki Manderson is particularly satisfying, as it combines the informal energy of impromptu Irish dance with a rigid discipline. The musical cocktail has the infectiousness of a lively trad session.

While the social and political history aspect of the story is fascinating, the script suffers from being overly didactic, thus rendering many of the characters preachy. The two villains are by far the most interesting: the bullying priest Father Sheridan is given snake-like life by Bosco Hogan. The Blueshirt Mr O’Keefe is played with real power by Donal O’Kelly, and has the best piece of writing in his description of the Black and Tans. One of the reasons righteousness is so difficult to dramatise, is because the devil ends up with all the best lines.




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