English National Opera’s forays beyond the walls of its Coliseum home in recent years have seen some innovative and exciting interpretations, revivals of Birtwistle, Henze and Rihm, a newer composition by Neuwirth and radical overhauls of Purcell and Monteverdi, as well as a collaboration with site-specific specialists Punchdrunk. By bringing their latest venture, Michel van der Aa and David Mitchell’s Sunken Garden, to the Barbican Theatre they are able to reach not only a wider but also a bigger audience than has been possible in their recent visits to the more modestly-sized Hampstead and Young Vic theatres. Reaching out to new operagoers is all very well but if limited capacity means it’s confined to an exclusive clique of early bookers, it’s a self-defeating strategy.
Dutch composer Michel van der Aa has a growing reputation for not just composition but also the fusion of film and other media into his work and, with a previous Barbican work behind him (the opera After Life in 2010), he looked a good bet to spring something novel onto an expectant audience. And there is novelty in Sunken Garden. It employs techniques, 3D film in particular, that haven’t been used to the same extent before, but that’s as far as it goes. With little more than some striking visuals, it won’t stay in the memory any longer than the aesthetics of an effects–heavy Hollywood blockbuster.
Van der Aa has worked with author David Mitchell to fashion a confusing, confused drama, that is dramatically pedestrian and plays second fiddle to technology. There’s a mystery-thriller aspect to the tale of a missing couple but the tension needed to engage for 110 minutes just isn’t there. Once it enters a magical dream world, the plot gets lost in quasi-mystical bewilderment – which would be fine, because the latter is potentially more interesting than a merely linear narrative, but here things drift into vacuousness and fail to capture the imagination.
It’s tempting with a new work, where an individual voice isn’t easily detected, to search for influences and allusions and it’s not difficult to find them in Sunken Garden. Michael Tippett’s similarly-titled The Knot Garden comes strongly to mind, with its references to The Tempest (Mitchell throws in “We are such stuff as dreams are made on”), a psycho-analyst called Mangus in Tippett’s work who becomes a doctor in a psychiatric hospital named Marinus, and mystical, dreamlike gardens at the centre of cryptic, convoluted plots.
Anyone who knows the work of Van der Aa’s countryman Louis Andriessen will be familiar with the sound world. That’s hardly surprisingly, as the older composer taught him composition at the Hague conservatory and Van der Aa wrote the electronic interludes for Andriessen’s Writing to Vermeer. Another Andriessen work, the excellent La Commedia, which premiered in Amsterdam in 2008 also used film but Van der Aa, who directs both the onstage and filmed sequences, goes a step further by integrating live action with 3D imagery. It does lead to some great effects: a bloodied fly pinned to a wall, with its spindly leg tickling your nostril, a wildly morphing garden and the singers moving around a 3-D garden work particularly well.
The score has plenty of attractive textures but it never quite takes off. The real weakness of the evening, though, is Van der Aa’s handling of the singers (Roderick Williams, Katherine Manley and Claron McFadden and a couple more on film). They need much more help from a director than they get here and resort to lumpy generalisations which do nothing to galvanise interest and make the interval-free 110 minutes drag. It’s a waste of three fine principals. The faux-documentary interviews on film are no better; the composer really should have confined himself to the music and visuals and allowed an experienced stage director to work with the singers and actors. Voices are amplified, which you hardly notice after a while, but surtitles are badly needed, especially as, with so inscrutable a libretto, much of the text gets lost.
Once again, ENO are to be applauded for trying something new and attempting to make opera a truly 21st Century art form but, as with Two Boys a couple of years go, it falls well short. Special effects and novelty ideas can’t do all the work. It’s frustrating, because opera needs to be taken to new places but Sunken Garden doesn’t do it.