Dispel all the stereotypes of stout sopranos warbling and stuffy, incomprehensible librettos: this is opera with its feet planted firmly in 2013. Dutch composer Michel van der Aa and novelist David Mitchell (of Cloud Atlas fame) have produced a work to show what opera can do, and what opera can be, in our world of ever-developing technology. Combining live action, 2D and 3D film, a blend of musical styles and modern, sometimes seemingly un-poetical language (“I’m gobsmacked, Mrs Briggs”, sings Toby) – Sunken Garden is a futuristic, intricate and captivating work from the English National Opera.
It is a production of contrasts: a traditional orchestra merges with electronic synths; bare, box-like sets give way to lush greenery; and raw human pain combines with cutting edge wizardry. Definitions of ‘reality’ are blurred as on-stage characters ‘touch’ those on film, causing the images to crackle and distort. It’s a vision that brings risks, but on the whole the project works wonderfully. The lush garden of the title, rendered vividly in 3D film, combines with images projected onto the stage floor to instantly create an overwhelming and vibrant set: a sign of the future? Moreover, characters on film connect with the audience just as powerfully – if not more so – as those on stage. The beautifully pure soprano of Kate Miller-Heidke (Amber) is offset by her arresting presence and gaze, her haunting refrain echoing in my mind long after the music had ended. Similarly, the excruciating sorrow of Simon (Jonathan McGovern) creates real anguish as the opera explores the weight of guilt.
Not everything succeeds quite as effectively as planned. The sparkling drops of water which appear to fly into the audience are exquisitely produced, yet it is unclear how this manipulation is meant to affect those on stage, as their Matrix-style body movements are, quite honestly, a little corny. In an interview with Front Row’s Mark Lawson, van der Aa and Mitchell discussed how the garden itself – the film itself – could become a character, a weapon which is manipulated by those who need its power. This is a fascinating concept but sadly isn’t conveyed to its full potential. Similarly, Zenna’s apparent entry into the garden through the mysterious vertical pool should be an explosive moment – yet it would be infinitely more effective if the audience couldn’t clearly see her creeping onstage from the wings. Yet the braveness and creativity should be applauded throughout, even in less-than-perfect moments. There were touches of magic in the detail, from the twitching, 3D moth, to the simplicity of gauze fluttering to the ground, catching the light exquisitely.
There is so much going on visually that the music could risk being ignored. There are not many memorable melodies here, and the opening section in particular contains an over-long section of recitative that begins to drag, as the backstory is established. Adding to this, beautiful as Katherine Manley’s (Zenna) soprano is, her diction could be clearer, whilst Roderick Williams’s (Toby) rich baritone needs a little bit more fire behind it in climactic scenes. However, the singing was on the whole superb and the orchestra tight and sparkling, negotiating the score’s intricate layerings.
At points, I would have been lost without a synopsis, an issue apparently shared by other theatregoers who bemusedly pondered the plot’s intricacies as they left the Barbican. There are some kinks to be ironed out here, no doubt, but there can be no questioning the excitement and intrigue of Sunken Garden, as van der Aa and Mitchell explore the boundaries of operatic production, triumphantly welcoming the future to our stages.
Sunken Garden is playing at the Barbican Theatre until 20 April. For more information and tickets, see the Barbican Centre website.