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?

ENO Medea

Image borrowed from

In brief: Connolly spurned in love; goes on murderous rampage with carving knife. And poison, phantoms, hell-fiends and mind-control.

I.e. all good stuff (for an opera).

There’s clearly trouble in Corinth, because the war council are meeting, political alliances are forming and fraying, and the top brass are scared stiff, much as they try and hide it behind epaulettes and swagger. In David McVicar’s 1940s-styled production, the three factions are represented with Creon and the Corinthians as the Army, Jason (and his group, presumably also from Thessaly) the Navy, and Orontes (Team Argos) as the Air Force – all of them gathered in an elegant mansion with a mirror-silvered floor that I should like to copy, should I even own a ballroom, and lighting perfectly judged for a period feel (Paule Constable). Political mixes with personal when Creon realises both Jason and Orontes are sniffing round his daughter Creusa, that if she were married to one of them, the new husband would be forced to stay in Corinth and help defend the place, and that actually, having reviewed their CVs, Jason would be a more useful son-in-law than Orontes. (Unfortunate that he’d already more or less promised the job/wife to Orontes, then.)

The libretto seems to imply that Creusa and Jason’s love is not only genuine but mutual; I found this love entirely unconvincing, and hope that this was intentional. If so, Katherine Manley did a very good job of acting Creusa acting being in love/lust with Jason, while actually caring for nobody but herself and her father. (The libretto did not imply an incestuous relationship between Creon and Creusa, but the direction certainly did. What is it with opera and incest? I blame Wagner.) Jeffrey Francis, I’m sorry to say, mostly seemed, from my point of view, to be acting a stuffed shirt. A friend in Row B of the stalls reckons his characterisation was ‘subtle’, but I’m afraid that from further back, this did not come across. While I can’t pick a fault in his singing – it seemed very correct and competent – his lack of charisma meant that the only way to accept the main plot point of Creusa and Medea fighting over this portly, stuffy, middle-aged, Golden-Fleece-days-long-past (but still a useful battle strategist) version of Jason  was to presume Creusa being manipulative (and manipulated), and Medea gripped by the kind of obsessive fixation that looks upon the beloved object and sees something very different than others do.

This opera is one that stands or falls, in large part, on its Medea, and this production, therefore, could not possibly fall with the superb Sarah Connolly in the title role. I was surprised, on looking back, to realise how little I’ve actually seen of her in live, staged opera (the last apparently being Rosenkavalier), given that I rate her as one of the best mezzos around, not to mention the definitive Giulio Cesare. I’m not alone in my high opinion; having arrived early for the opera, I struck up a conversation with a fashionably-dressed Young Person who – stereotyping ahoy! – didn’t look like the expected audience for obscure French baroque. Wondering if he’d been wooed in by the ENO’s Yeah, Wear Jeans – Groovy! policy, I asked what had brought him along to this, and he looked at me like I was an idiot, saying “Duh, Sarah Connolly is amazing??”. Anyway, yes she was, miserable and downtrodden at the start, then an ominously overheating pressure-cooker of warped emotion, going to full demon-summoning, wrist-slashing homicidal mania in Act 3, then moving finally to chilly disdain for the lives of the pathetic humans surrounding her – and all the time, singing with a depth of expression and intensity that somehow kept the audience on her side even as the bodies piled up. (Well, the adult bodies, anyway. I expect she lost a few people’s sympathy when it came to the children.) Of the other singers, regular readers will not be surprised to find me once more declaiming the brilliance of favourite bass Brindley Sherratt. Creon only gets the one decent aria, but, damn, if it wasn’t stunning stuff – and not in the least diminished in tragic intensity by the fact that he had to deliver it with his trousers round his ankles. This takes talent. Third star of the show was bronze-timbred baritone Roderick Williams as Squadron Commander Orontes Flashheart, having to cope, for probably the first time in his life, with not Getting the Girl – and the only source of humour, warmth and likeability on stage.

It is perhaps unfair to call Williams the only source of humour, as there was a highly entertaining moment of  unexpected camp in Act 1, where the troops first enter, and Team Thessaly (the Navy) – minus Jason, of course – suddenly break into an anachronistic high-kicking dance routine, to the bemusement and suspicion of Corinth and Argos alike. I also found Creusa’s final scene to have some amusement value – although, to be fair, she gave a pathetic and affecting death aria once the poison dress was activated. However, to dip into the inaccurate stereotype pool again, it did strike me as such a blonde soprano thing, to go and ask a favour of the homicidal sorceress whose husband you’ve just stolen, while wearing her best dress (that you’ve more or less just stolen). That’s not going to wind her up even more, no. There were further dance scenes, as being French opera, there has to be half an hour where the action stops, the main characters plonk themselves down (in this case in a pink glittery aeroplane) and watch some random filler dance acts – but these weren’t particularly funny, just some slack-jawed, splay-legged sleaziness in suspenders, performed to music that (sorry, M. Charpentier) shouldn’t have survived the editing process, if there was such a thing.

In addition to something of a fixation on deep-pitched voices, this blog takes particular notice of outsize instruments. So, in the pit, one bass recorder (Catherine Fleming) spotted beforehand, listened out for, and very much enjoyed. The other two recorders (Ian Wilson, Merlin Harrison) were inferior only in terms of size,  and with no disrespect to the rest of the excellent ensemble, of the instrumental component of the score it was the recorder section that stood out – they were exquisite. French baroque opera is not a genre of music I am particularly familiar with (in some part due to being put off, as an undergraduate,  by an interminably dull – afternoon? day? week? Might have only been an hour or so, but felt like 10 years? – spent studying Lully), and I admit it did take me a while to settle into the groove. Perhaps it’s because I’ve had my head mostly in Wagner mode recently, where EXTREME is the thing, restraint not so much, but at first I found Charpentier’s composition somewhat samey, with little stylistic differentiation based on which character was singing, their mood, what they were singing about, and to whom. However, as I became more used to the genre, the more subtle differences of tempo, timbre, melody and harmony came fully into focus. Nevertheless, I suggest that without expert direction, the music would fall down flat in a ditch, and its success here is due to the combination of enthusiasm, knowledge, and minute attention to detail of MD Christian Curnyn.

Stray observation:

As well as added incest, there seemed to be a bit of a shoe theme going on. Medea kicks off her shoes to denote entering hellfire mode (as well as losing her prim suit, and chucking a chair) – quite right: one can’t be a-revenging in court shoes. The two fiends she summons from the depths are, as well as being flayed and bloody, tormented further by being forced to squish their toes into uncomfortable high heels for eternity. And Creusa, rather distractingly, spends one scene lurching irritatingly around the stage with one shoe (high heeled, of course) off and one shoe on. I should like to know what this represents.