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  • Chris O'Rourke

A Thing I Cannot Name

A Thing I Cannot Name. Image by Jeda de Brí


A religious intensity infuses composer Amanda Feery's and librettist Megan Nolan's A Thing I Cannot Name, in which singers Rebecca Kelli-Ann Masterson, Jean Rachel Goode and Catherine Aebh Kelly sound distinctly Gregorian at times. The opening evoking nuns singing Compline to the accompaniment of a church organ. The choral structure recurs between some strong solos refined by restraint, allowing music, voice and Nolan's alliteration heavy libretto to breathe and meld. Visually, director Aoife Spillane-Hinks' triptych heavy images reinforce clear religious leanings, like stained glass panels above a church altar. Ensuring A Thing I Cannot Name speaks not only to female desire, but to the suppression of desire, and to the eroticism of it.

Or should that be desires? Unrequited obsession, yearning for a forbidden lover, craving a child, these women desire entirely different things, and desire them in entirely different ways. Yet visual and choral overlaps suggests similarity rather than individuality, which solos open up a little. But the uniformity of composition and libretto, along with visual framing, reinforces a collective of aloneness, like three voices shouting into the abyss waiting to hear an echo which never comes.

Consequently, A Thing I Cannot Name feels less about desire than about its constraint, evoked musically and visually. Musically, the choral structure is never strayed too far from. Shifting in and out of a triptych of screens, Spillane-Hinks' close up heavy images rely on mildly erotic tropes, often blurred, blended, or half seen. In which the body is separated into sanitised erotic zones; hands, neck, mouth, skin, becoming sites where the camera skims like an embarrassed aunt, or lingers like a peeping tom. Meanwhile singers with penetrating, far away stares, render us invisible, making disconnected voyeurs of us all. Till they turn and face the camera directly, each face a pageant of pain beautifully evoked by Spillane-Hinks, delivering a visceral sting in the tail you wanted to see more of.

Commissioned by Irish National Opera, A Thing I Cannot Name's premiere was streamed via the West Cork Literary Festival on July 27. Begging the question when will it be available on demand? Even allowing for the broad shift towards shorter runs to maximise audience capacities, with the risks to a greater commodification of art, A Thing I Cannot Name is a hymn to her deserving of more than an artistic one night stand. Richer than the sum of its fabulous voices, framing female desires like unanswered prayers, it plays within religious musical structures only to transcend them, with a libretto which speaks succinctly and smartly to the power and powerlessness of desire. Evoking questions far beyond what's seen and heard, itself an opera film that deserves to be seen and heard.

Commissioned by Irish National Opera, A Thing I Cannot Name by composer Amanda Feery and librettist Megan Nolan, directed by Aoife Spillane-Hinks, was streamed via the West Cork Literary Festival on July 27.


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