The Second Violinist – Barbican, London

Composer: Donnacha Dennehy

Writer and Director: Enda Walsh

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Premiering in Galway last summer, The Second Violinist comes to the Barbican trailing accolades in its wake, but after viewing this modern opera it is hard to justify all the praise. It’s a multi-media mess.

Co-produced by Landmark and Irish National Opera it’s surprising that things are such a muddle, especially as it’s written and directed by Irish playwright Enda Walsh, most famous for his play Disco Pigs. Here, Walsh gives us two parallel stories based very loosely on the life of the 16th Century composer Carlo Gesualdo: the first one of Martin, battling the pressures of playing in an orchestra. He’s under-rehearsed for their upcoming concert, but he’s more interested in playing games on his phone, and messaging women on Tinder. The other story is of Matthew, who drinks to avoid the fact that he’s in a loveless marriage, and he is quite taken by his wife’s old school friend who comes to visit one night. Towards the end of this 75-minute show, we see how these two stories are linked through a very operatic tragedy.

But by the time this reveal comes, it’s difficult to be excited as the story is overshadowed by the cluttered set designed by Jamie Vartan. A screen on which Matthew’s texts and photos appear dominates the Barbican’s wide stage. Above the screen is a fairy-tale forest only accessible by a pull-down ladder. Bits of furniture are dotted around the stage with a functional shower in one corner and a fridge in another. Recorded voices are drowned out by the orchestra, who are sunk in a pit in the centre of the stage. The 16-strong chorus clump from one side of the stage to another being careful not to step on the running machine that Martin sometimes uses to symbolise that his life is out of control. With the use of such different media, The Second Violinist lacks a cohesive aesthetic.

Perhaps this wouldn’t matter if Donnacha Dennehy’s music was any good, but at first it sounds flat and then, as the pressure on Matthew intensifies, discordant, only relieved occasionally by some mournful strings. Thankfully, mezzo-soprano Sharon Carty, who plays Amy, and soprano Máire Flavin, who plays Hannah, add some class to an otherwise uninspired composition, but it’s such a shame that the words they sing are mostly insipid generalities. Baritone Benedict Nelson as Matthew is underused and he doesn’t get the chance to impress in the same was as Carty and Flavin. Aaron Monaghan as Martin doesn’t sing at all and spends most of his time just looking angry.

We know how he feels, and it’s frustrating that so much time, energy and money has gone into this production. Perhaps, those behind it think it looks edgy. In fact, it just looks silly.

Runs until 8 September 2018 | Image: Contributed

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A multi-media mess

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