Irish National Opera, hosted online by West Cork Literary Festival, on 27 July 2021

Commissioned by Irish National Opera, ‘A Thing I Cannot Name’ by (writer) Megan Nolan and (composer) Amanda Feery premiered this week as part of West Cork Literary Festival. Thanks to the pandemic, and some elegant filming and visual design, it is a beautiful video opera. Maybe it will stay this way, or maybe it will sidestep the time-limited fate of other video projects and be let loose on a stage to change and grow, who knows? Letting anything, even an abstract art-work, escape the prison of this year is an enticing prospect at this point.

Three voices (Kelli-Ann Masterson, Rachel Goode, Aebh Kelly, all superb) nominally present three characters, each living in the same flat, at different times. Their subject is desire, and the vulnerable inertia and loneliness that its frustration feeds. The three voices suggest women close enough in age, all 20s and 30s, to create other possibilities, perhaps we’re hearing the one character at different stages, or else the song of the room itself? The material is dark, but this darkness is healing and thought-provoking, a darkness where ideas can grow.

The overlapping voices evoke the world of early or even pre-opera, like the madrigalian declamations of Luzzaschi or Monteverdi, three women stepping out of time to find their lament. The vocal writing is expressive and clear, the blend (of voices and colours) keenly balanced, intertwining with each other and the different instrumental presences. At times the sounds weigh in on a voice, like the pressure getting too much. The sounds point inwards – inner thoughts, sonic associations, vague nostalgias – there is nothing diagetic or ‘outside’. Theatricality is replaced by lighting, hand movements, the angle of vision, the dance of the eyes.

It’s tempting to think of this piece as a reply to the old operatic devices, all that undoing of women. This artform might seem awash with expressions of female desire (Armide, Medea, Agrippina, Ariane…) elsewhere, but the male focus they ultimately serve – whether disappointing or not – is never far from view. Here, however, the mythic resonances are reversed: these are like reverse Sirens, disconnected from old associations. The fire is now ashes, glamour is meaningless.

This brilliant work deserves a wider audience, and hopefully more chances to see it will follow soon.

Amanda Feery: A Thing I Cannot Name
English libretto by Megan Nolan; Produced by Irish National Opera
Conductor: Elaine Kelly; Director: Aoife Spillane-Hinks; Set & Costume Designer: Jack Scullion; Lighting Designer: Stephen Dodd; Video Production: Gansee; Audio Production: Ergodos
Cast: Kelli-Ann Masterson (Rebecca), Rachel Goode (Jean), Aebh Kelly (Catherine); Musicians: Lina Andonovska (flute), Cora Lunny (violin), Caimin Gilmore (double bass), Barry O’Halpin (electric guitar), Caitriona Frost (percussion), Luke Lally-Maguire (piano)

Photography by Jeda de Brí