I was at a packed Barbican to see Sunken Garden, the most hyped new opera of the season, which has been called ‘the first 21st century opera’ in its blending of live action and 3-D film, live and pre-recorded music in a multimedia extravaganza. Its excellent music is by the Dutch Michel van der Aa, who also made the films and directed the whole show, which is, apart from anything else, an extraordinary feat of technical virtuosity in every dimension. The words – and much of the publicity – come from the author of Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell. Unfortunately his contribution, newsworthy as it clearly is, is also by far the weakest element of the piece, fatally undermining the whole project with an ill-conceived and poorly realised libretto.
I was warned to read the synopsis before going to the show, which I did, three times. It made me suspect the worst. The plot is ridiculously convoluted, mixing realism uncomfortably with fantasy, and, even on its own eccentric terms, full of holes. The words were often hard to make out, particularly Katherine Manley’s Zenna Briggs, but often cliched and unmusical when they were. What a contrast with Martin Crimp’s magical text for the recent Written on Skin.
But it can’t be denied the show looks fantastic. The combination of live action and film is seamless and technically brilliant. There is a magical moment of a duet between Roderick Williams (live) and Kate Miller-Heidke (on film), in which the film splinters into a haunting split-screen polyphonic chorus supporting the live voice. Midway through, the characters enter the sunken garden of the title, a magical space between life and death, which is realised in 3-D film. I hadn’t seen a 3-D film previously, and the effect is undeniably impressive, the more so with the live actors moving around the live space and appearing to interact with it. At one point one character splashes the ‘vertical pond’ (which is a portal to the real world) sending water droplets zooming out into the audience. And the destruction of the garden into digital shards is extraordinary.
All of which puts the music a bit in the shade, which is a shame. Van der Aa has produced a vibrant underscore, coaxing interesting textures from a small orchestra augmented, always sensitively, by an electro-acoustic track. Sometimes the music comes to the fore, notably in a queasy quasi-dance music section set in a club, but most of the time it is overshadowed by the visual pyrotechnics.
The future of opera may well (should?) involved increasing use of film and multimedia, particularly if it is done as flawlessly as here. But being modern in that sense does not require an incomprehensible sci-fi plot which simply does not allow characters to emerge or engage. It is a huge pity that, for all the wonderful artists and craftsmen involved in making such a brilliant spectacle, and with a composer capable of conjuring striking and enjoyable music, the whole projected is scuppered by a story and text which should never have been allowed off the drawing-board.
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