Sinister and lyrical, The Second Violinist begins with spectral lights illuminating, one after the other, all the spots of the incredible set design by Jamie Vartan. The overture foregrounds the intrinsic multimediality of the show, working together to proudly exhibit a fragmentary set. A huge screen, surmounted by a forest of bare tree trunks, scraps of rooms and furniture, unsteady large wooden blocks, the pit of the orchestra, and walkable pathways all around, make up this set. If there is a prize for ‘the most mind-blowing and minimalist’ set design, this would definitely have a good chance of winning. Both Piecemeal and organic, the set alone steals the show.
Hosted in this setting is an equally absorbing (if puzzling) opera. The protagonist is Martin (Aaron Monaghan), the eponymous violinist, who jumps out of the pit and makes his appearance in a self-affirming way. The opera follows the story of his crisis as an artist and a lover, echoing the eventful life of composer Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613). In parallel, we are also presented with a dinner party at the house of Amy (Sharon Carty) and Matthew (Benedict Nelson), together with Amy’s long-standing friend Hannah (Márie Flavin). At times disconcerting, the opera is a hymn to loneliness, passion, and the vortex that is creative talent. Art goes hand in hand with agony, and with the struggle of artistic genius. Its origins are taken for granted; its course is unfolded, rather than explained.
The twisting and slightly obscure plot is amplified by the power of opera as a medium (which makes The Second Violinist a total work of art). You really have to embrace its weirdness, the mélange of events, characters, chorus, acting, text, singing, music, images, videos, and lights. The show has so many layers it would be easy to get lost. It’s all happening at the same time. It can get a bit overwhelming, but if you surrender and lose yourself in it, it works.
Minimalist and experimental, the music by Donnacha Dennehy is essential to the experience. Syncopated rhythms, rumbling percussions and inevitable violins contribute to transposing the audience to a different dimension. Two elements in particular remind me of classical theatre. Firstly, the chthonic quality of the music, which has a distinctively Dionysian nature, could also be called visceral. Secondly, the chorus plays the vital role as a depositary of ‘ancient wisdom’, much like in Ancient Greek theatre, where the chorus offers deep insights by commenting on the events. Thus, the sense of other-worldliness is coupled with a wisdom-dispensing experience.
The real triumph of the opera is the emotions it stirs up in us, even without (or perhaps precisely without) allowing a rational understanding. For the audience, the ultimate achievement is to be touched in ways that go beyond rationality. In many ways, the show operates on the same level as art and love themselves do.
The Second Violinist played at the Barbican until 8 September. For further information, click here.