Saturday, 13 April 2013

ENO's Sunken Garden, or, Proving that Michael van der Aa is not a Triple Threat

For the last few years English National Opera has escaped the Coliseum once a year for something smaller scale and generally more experimental. Because these tend to be short runs at an academically inconvenient time of year this is the first of these escapes that I've managed to catch. On the whole I rather wish I hadn't, though I can't say I wasn't warned.

Sunken Garden is advertised as a film opera. The programme notes go to great lengths to insist that the art forms are organically linked together, or as the composer, director and film-maker is quoted as saying “3D would be locked into the DNA of the libretto.” Sitting through it this was not my experience. In the first part the musical sections don't feel well connected to the films and in the second the Garden's visualisation in 3D could be dispensed with at no loss to anybody. The only person who can be blamed for this, with the exception of the libretto to which we'll come, is Michael van der Aa. Van der Aa apparently labours under the delusion that he is some new kind of operatic triple threat – equally talented as composer, director and film-maker. In fairness he is undeniably passable at all three, but on the basis of this show in none of them is he of a quality to make one want to rush to see/hear more of his work.

He is not, it has to be said, helped by David Mitchell's libretto which commits three cardinal sins. First of all it failed to create characters which engaged my emotions. Secondly, it engages in tedious moralising about needing to live every moment despite all the awful things that occur – as I've remarked in other contexts this kind of messaging only really works if connected to a character for whom one really cares. Thirdly, it leaves so many plot points unexplained as to have one gnawing limbs off in frustration. To give just a few instances: What is the Garden doing there in the first place? How come Dr Marinus has the power to destroy it? And why is Tobias's only means of escape to jump through the pond of water (which explodes so we can be reminded how clever using 3D film is) into the body of Zenna Briggs thereby undergoing a bizarre sex change? I failed to grasp any of this by listening to the piece and the two page plot summary in the programme is not much help either.

Musically, the work is performed to a high standard with fine singing on stage from Roderick Williams (Toby) and Katherine Manley (Zenna ) and on film from Jonathan McGovern (Simon) and Kate Miller-Heidke (Amber). Diction, often a problem, is commendably good. The ENO Orchestra under Andre de Ridder also turn in a fine performance, it's just a pity that all of this is in the service of a not especially distinguished score.

Ultimately, what really sticks in my throat about this is the idea that it somehow represents the future of opera. To my mind it is yet another instance of a group of people responding to their own fear of the art form by running away from it. The best operas (standard rep or new commissions) are those which tell a compelling narrative through the traditional tools of the stage – effective setting, design and management of personal. Get all those things to work together (plus of course a really outstanding score) and opera is enormously powerful. To go further, I would argue that the most powerful moments in plays or opera often come from the smallest gestures or moments of stillness. Sadly some people, including John Berry, seem to lack faith in this. Opera, they apparently assume, is a fatally problematic art form and other things must be grafted on to it to avoid boredom and to get new audiences in. Hence here not merely 2D but 3D film and spoken interludes. The result is neither opera, nor some satisfying new form. It's an overblown fudge. Chalk this up as one to miss.

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