SUNKEN GARDEN (ENO at Barbican Theatre, 2013-04-13)

Image borrowed from
Image borrowed from

I’m writing this, unfortunately, a couple of weeks after seeing it, which means (a) everyone who was considering going already either did or didn’t, (b) my memory is more suspect than usual, and (c) I’ve looked at other people’s reviews before writing my own, which I normally avoid.

The reviews I read were mixed, in the sense that I saw one giving it one star, one giving it five, and a few in between. This is not a surprise, for a contemporary opera by one of those composers where you (ok, I) think, hmm, recognise the name – Michel van der Aa – but can’t recall hearing anything by him, and which is described in the blurb as a “multimedia ‘occult mystery’, combining live performance, music, 2D and 3D film”. Here I am free from having to give things star ratings, so can simply say that overall, I had a very enjoyable evening, but there were some aspects of both the work and the production that left me a little cold.

There’s been a lot made of the 3D thing. I find the opera I’ve seen generally tends to be in 3D, in fact more so, because it doesn’t usually involve any characters who never physically set foot on the stage and only appear as moving images projected onto screens. Not exactly a new trick – kind of a modern version of having your Shakespearean ghosts appear and disappear through nifty deployment of smoke, mirrors, and a hidden actor in the wings – but very effectively done, nevertheless. The Sunken Garden of the title turns out to be a holographic simulation of the Eden Project, with slow-mo water droplets that spray attractively out into the stalls, and giant foliage that sticks out as if to poke the front row in the eye. Taken as a stage set, that just happened to be created with modern technology rather than in more traditional ways, I found it very visually attractive and dramatically effective. And with the bonus of being transportable on a hard drive rather than a fleet of lorries! (I know, it’s not that simple…)

So, Simon (pre-recorded video projection of Jonathan McGovern) and Amber (likewise video Kate Miller-Heidke) have gone missing, and film-maker Toby (your actual real life Roderick Williams) is making a documentary about their disappearance, while searching for them in an increasingly obsessive manner, his auteur/detective efforts sponsored by rich patron of the arts Zenna (real Katherine Manley). One name keeps cropping up in his investigations, the sinister-seeming Dr Marinus, who turns out to be Claron McFadden, in the third and final live acting/singing role. The vocal writing utilises generally disjoint melodies, highly chromatic and with many wide leaps up and down between registers (although rather soprano/falsetto-heavy, unfortunately for this bass lover), and reminding me somewhat of Adès. It wasn’t at all unpleasant, but I can’t say most of it, particularly in the first half, had much of an effect on me. This is not to be blamed on the singing – Manley, McFadden and McGovern did their best with the material. Roderick Williams is always a pleasure to hear, and seeing him in this straight after his excellent Orontes in Medea confirmed his musical versatility (not to mention his visual switch from dashing, handsome fighter pilot to slouching, scruffy screen-potato*). The Amber sections were some of the most interesting, because her music blended contemporary classical styles with elements of electronic/dance genres, and this kind of material was handled by van der Aa very well indeed. Miller-Heidke’s clever vocal stying gave Amber a vibrato-free air of innocence, without compromising pitch or tone, and the sound was digitally treated in post-production, or sometimes multitracked. The vocal highlights were the ensemble pieces, when live singers were combined with pre-recorded video.

A live orchestra (MD’d by André de Ridder) was also combined with electronically-generated and pre-recorded sounds, and while I couldn’t quite get a handle on the music harmonically and structurally, I very much enjoyed the varied textures, and the way relevant snippets of audio (e.g. one of the characters’ compulsive finger-tapping) were incorporated elsewhere. The brass had some funk-infused rhythmic stuff to do, which they very much strutted, and while in this case I obviously wouldn’t notice any wrong notes, the whole ensemble gave every impression of pinpoint accuracy.

At one point, Toby makes a meta little snipe about the current fashion for filming in 3D, which wasn’t as funny or clever as van der Aa and librettist David Mitchell (the Cloud Atlas novelist, not the quippy panel show fixture – although if he did write one, I expect it would be funny and clever) thought it was. However, there were many examples where text and visuals played with audience expectations and theatrical tradition. I’ve forgotten most of them, though I recall remarking them at the time, but one example was the way Dr Marinus was introduced. She’s a psychiatrist (which fiction tells us are probably not to be trusted), who runs a mental hospital where people vanish (so definitely probably an evil scientist, then), and then she turns up with a gender-neutral haircut and a Red Suit (ok, make that demonic). Nope, she turns out to be the (super-)heroic one who battles the evil monster to rescue the lost souls. Note: it’s also comparatively rare to see two supernatural, powerful forces battling it out (not quite something as simple as Good and Evil, or Life and Death, but along those lines), watched by a weak bystander helpless to intervene (Toby), where the two former are female and the latter male.

Life and Death? Evil? Monsters? Yes, a step up to some Big Themes. After a first hour(-ish) set firmly in the real world of missing persons, video cameras and money hassles, Toby stepped through a mysterious door, we, as instructed, put on our 3D goggles, and things went – where did they go? I’m not quite sure – which would be fine, except that I’m not sure if it was supposed to be left ambiguous, or whether it was all in the libretto, but I just missed it. Not for the first time I realised I’ve become rather spoonfed by the prevalence of surtitles and find it rather difficult to cope without them. (The fact that I followed as much of the libretto as I did, and have any clue about what was going on at all, is surely down to the singers’ excellent diction – well, that and the miking). It makes me wonder, though, about the effect on the brains those of us who do a lot of listening to singing, in languages we don’t speak and/or with the lyrics stretched and distorted into incomprehensibility by the demands of melody and counterpoint. It may not be a neurocognitively accurate description, but I feel as though the ‘visual bit’ of my brain gets happily on with processing the text content, while allowing the ‘auditory bit’ to focus purely on musical appreciation. This is an enjoyable experience, but possibly not a helpful habit to form.

Where was I? Yes, Monsters! Dr Marinus isn’t one, but Zenna is, sort of. She is no dippy philanthropist of the arts, but a powerful alien(?) being that kidnaps humans to feed on their souls/memories/emotions/life-essence/etc., while imprisoning their deteriorating consciousnesses in her private alternate-dimension/holodeck/demonic-realm/hypnotic-state/etc. Are they dead or alive? Somewhere in between the two, we are told, and she put them there. But is the VR Eden Project simulation like a Star Trek holodeck that Toby physically visits? Or is it a shared dream where their minds are, while their bodies are lying inertly somewhere else? If so, where are the bodies, and how are they being kept alive all these months? (Or aren’t they being kept alive at all, like in Planet B?) Perhaps their bodies are in comas at the mental hospital, which would explain why Dr Marinus is involved (although not why their families think they’ve vanished). Am I being too literal and analytical about this, when I ought to be satisfied with metaphysical vagueness? That’s the conclusion I came to at the time, and made a conscious decision to stop trying to Work It Out, to accept Marinus and Zenna as manifestations of elemental opposing forces, the garden as symbolic, and just sit back and enjoy the pretty spectacle and bleepy orchestra noises.

I was still hoping Mitchell would provide some kind of reveal/explanation, though, as he does in Ghostwritten, and some things are tied up. It seems Simon and Amber are both suffering severe depression, and ambivalent about life, so have chosen to inhabit Zenna’s mind-numbing alternate reality. However, Toby tries to persuade them to Choose Life, while Marinus breaks the Garden simulation, making it go all swooshy and pixelly. Then Zenna appeared at the end in Toby’s clothes. Rather than just stealing his clothes, I think this means she has the power to jump her consciousness into other people’s bodies and take them over (a good old trope, I think best done by Octavia Butler in the Patternist series). And why not? This is all great subject matter for an opera, and I’d be happy to see more of this kind of thing. And some space operas that are actually operas, while you’re at it.

* The computer equivalent of couch potato. Is there a better term for this?


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