Writer: Composed by Michel van der Aa, libretto by David Mitchell
Director: Michel van der Aa
Reviewer: Lizzie Kirkwood
Sunken Garden, an English National Opera production at The Barbican, is a 3D mystery occult film opera. It’s not a surprise to discover that it’s a first for the ENO, and for the world. A collaboration between composer Michel van der Aa and author David Mitchell, Sunken Garden fuses 2D and 3D film with contemporary opera, with results that are captivating and baffling in equal measure.
Video-artist Toby is making a film about two missing people; lonely divorcee Simon and rich art school drop-out Amber. After receiving financial backing from the mysterious Zenna, Toby decides to shoot his film in 3D. Growing suspicions that they were abducted by secret followers of the occult lead Toby to discover Simon and Amber (3D glasses: on) in a virtual sunken garden. Zenna appears in the garden, as does the equally mysterious Doctor Marinus.
We learn that the inhabitants of this virtual paradise have exchanged their mortality for eternity in the garden, a life where past traumas have not happened. The opera considers the themes of culpability, memory, mortality and obsession. To describe it as dense would be a considerable understatement.
In his note on the production, Mitchell describes the process of editing down his original draft and the repeated command from van der Aa to ‘thicken the sauce’. The resultant narrative is thick to the point of opacity; it is so thick with ideas, existential musings, plot twists, character back-stories and so on, that once we get to the garden, it’s impossible to see the wood for the trees (pun intended).
As a by-product of this, the characters themselves feel thin and it is hard to forge any kind of emotional connection with them. When Simon confesses his past guilt that has led him to the garden, it is written so well by Mitchell that one can’t help feeling as if the music were getting in the way.
Each element of this production has been pushed to its limits- the music is complex and fascinating, fusing live orchestration ingeniously with pre-recorded sounds from Toby’s films and when we see Amber in a club, drifting seamlessly and effectively into dance music. Mitchell’s libretto is multi-layered and compelling, but in an opera, the naturalistic speech is at times alienating and impenetrable.
Inspired by the use of Technicolor in The Wizard of Oz, the use of 3D is seamlessly integrated into the plot. All of the films are beautifully shot and interwoven into the piece expertly. Although attempts to interact with the 3D footage are strangely ineffective, and unfortunately call to mind Complicite’s staggeringly effective use of film in The Master and Margarita, played on the same stage.
Sunken Garden is certainly a visual spectacle (if one chooses to ignore the costumes, which are unanimously unflattering), but it is also a work of real literary depth and a boundary-pushing musical accomplishment. Unfortunately, all three on the same stage jostle for precedence, with no clear winner.
At times breathtaking, at others confusing, but always intriguing, every aspect of Sunken Garden is vast and ambitious. Sunken Garden boldly explores the limits of 21st century technology in opera, but ends up feeling in need of dilution.