United Kingdom Van der Aa, Sunken Garden:Cast and Orchestra of English National Opera / André de Ridder (conductor), Barbican Theatre, London, 12.4.13 (CC)
Toby Kramer – Roderick Williams
Zenna Briggs – Katherine Manley
Iris Marinus – Claron McFadden
Simon Vines – Jonathan McGovern
Amber Jacquemain – Kate Miller-Heidke
Michel van der Aa – Director
Theun Monk – Set & Lighting Designer
Frank van der Weij – Technical Production Development
I think it is fair to say this opera will divide critics. Personally, I sorely wish I could be more positive. The evening is a technological triumph – of that there is no doubt. (After the failings of the 2011 first night of Einstein on the Beach – again, at the Barbican – anything demanding technical trickery has to be viewed with suspicion!) The audience is given full-fat Polaroid Premium 3D specs, none of the flimsy cardboard stuff you find in DVD cases. Trust clearly abounds, as we are merely expected to leave them on the desks on the way out. And 3D we certainly get for the second half of the opera, a stunningly hyper-vivid Eden.
But any trickery, if not supported by substance, is due to failure after a short time. Aa’s opera is pretty much proof of this dictum. We enter the 3D world via a door in a concrete pillar underneath a bypass. Roderick Williams (or Toby, for the night) helpfully puts on a pair of specs, just in case we have forgotten that’s where we get to use the toys. There is also a cryptic note in a yellow bubble on the front of the programme which states, “Put on the 3D glasses when entering the door by the flyover”, which intrigues rather than helps.
It is not just 3D that is all modern and technical here. ENO seems to like videos and projections, including an Erda in the Ring and stunning pearl fishers (in the Bizet opera of that name). For Sunken Garden, a sequence of films, spoken documentaries with characters providing background to the story are projected on a slice of the stage which is divided into four (like Battenberg cake). The actors and actresses all provide very amusing caricatures, and initially one is seduced. But (again, that word) one gets tired of it all very quickly. Strangely, the segmenting of the stage brought to mind a very recent opera that did succeed, and triumphantly so: George Benjamin’s Written on Skin over the road at the Royal Opera. That, alas, is where any similarities end.
All of this is a pity, as the meeting of Michel van der Aa and David Mitchell promised to be a stimulating one. Mitchell is most famous these days for Cloud Atlas, a book that has just been made into a film and that totally, and perhaps unfairly, eclipsed his novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (which I actually enjoyed far more). The plot in Sunken Garden mixes detective story and occult/sci-fi escapism. An IT contractor, Simon Vines, has disappeared; Amber Jacquemain, a young girl, has also disappeared, it transpires – so the two might have eloped. Toby Kramer is funded by Zenna Briggs of the Briggs Foundation to create a film about them. Amber describes dreams of a sunken garden; a friend of Simon’s Sadaqat, lives in a psychiatric ward, and believes that one of the doctors, Dr Marinus, is involved in the disappearances.
So far so convoluted. As Toby saunters around, he sees the door (that door) in a pillar of a flyover. And here it all changes and we get our five minutes or so of magic, when we see the Sunken Garden of the title in all its glory. Here, among other hyper-real features, there is a mystical, vertical pond, immediately bringing us into the world of Alice through the Looking Glass, as well as sprays of water that look as if they might land in the middle of the stalls. As Mitchell puts it in his synopsis, the garden is “an occult engine in the dusk between life and death”. So, what exactly does this mean? Dragging in occultist ideas brings to mind images of an astral temple, or an egregore (an astral construction brought about by the power of thought form corporeal beings). But maybe it is just a dud idea dragged in from some partially digested sci-fi. It also brings back memories of an even more risible recent ENO flop, Doctor Dee.
From the Garden, back tales are told, allowing us to comprehend some of the more curious references of the first part of the opera. Toby’s fate is just strange (I won’t spoil it). But not stimulating strange, refreshing strange, or climactic strange.; just flat strange.
The music shares one key thing with the 3D concept. It intrigues occasionally but then the interest wears off, and swiftly. Van der Aa’s musical palette is varied. In compositional terms, he’s an omnivore who after eating every course regurgitates each one in no particular order. So it is that pseudo, substandard minimalism rubs shoulders with nightclub dance music, interspersed with massive splatterings of gray modernism. It is true that van der Aa demonstrates a decidedly lyric impulse in his mode of delivery, but the problem here is that his melodies are so utterly unmemorable. All credit to the ENO orchestra for dealing so well with a score that is a tattered musical patchwork.
Praise should also be heaped upon the singers and actors, both real and video-bound. The star is Roderick Williams, whose appealing voice lends itself well to long, lyrical lines. Williams is also an expert at falsetto, which is just as well given van der Aa’s penchant for that register. Katherine Manley has plenty of stage oomph as Zenna Briggs. However Claron McFadden, as Iris (Dr) Marinus, is simply exceptional in every way, her vocal powers seemingly endless; McFadden was matched from every angle by Kate Miller-Heidke, as Amber. Miller-Heidke is classically trained (Queensland Conservatory, Australia) but has also carved a career in alternative pop. This cross-culturalisation implies she is perfect for Sunken Garden, and so it is. She has the voice, and the looks, to do everything she possibly can with this role.
And still, despite all this effort, the verdict must remain: desperately disappointing. Techno-nerds may rejoice in a new type of 21st century opera all they like. Musicians may well react very, very differently.