Sunken Garden sinks

13 Apr

I had a feeling when I booked that going to the first night on 12th April of the ENO’s lated commission – Michel van der Aa’s Sunken Garden at the Barbican was a mistake. I tend to resist multi-media and 3D.  But I thought I should give it a try.  As I watched this, I felt as though I was watching the emperor’s clothes disappearing one by one.  It is, of course, possible that I’m way out of touch and just don’t “get” these things.

I really can’t be bothered to tell you much about the plot.  Toby, a conceptual artist gets tempted by a patron, Zenna to find two lost people, Simon and Amber and finds himself part of her created garden where images of people remain until they turn into immortal moths.  Or something.  Opera readily copes with the supernatural, but there are two types of such opera: where the supernatural, as in Alcina, say, or Wagner, represents something about power or love; and where, as in Meyerbeer, it is an excuse for a spectacle.  I think Michel van der Aa wanted to have a go at opera in 3D and this farago provided an excuse for it.  In fairness, I should say that I don’t readily respond to science fiction or magic realism and so you may find it a fascinating exploration of something or other.

It had its moments.  David Mitchell’s text struck me as witty with some amusing scenes but the women in particular had huge difficulty projecting the text (no surtitles) even with amplification which caused problem in their long scene in the garden.  But it was hard to be even slightly interested in or to care about the characters or feel that there was some point to the story.  I suppose it might be a parody of post-modern conceptual art, but it wasn’t funny enough for that.

I’ve never really seen the point of 3D, other than as a rather expensive children’s toy that is impressive once but you get tired of after quite a small time.  It looks and feels synthetic and, at times simply didn’t work in a theatre where there are different sight-lines and edges to the stage (and, after all, is already in 3D).  There were some pretty effects but there were also clumsinesses.  There was one point where Roderick Williams as Toby was meant to be talking to Amber, the disappeared girl.  If you had the 3D glasses on, she was in front of him and he was to talking to a tree.  If you took them off, he was talking to her image.  I think he was meant to be talking to her image.  Worse, the fact that it was on the stage meant that you could see the edge of 3D image and, frequently, the actors were outside that edge but still part of the set.  Having the glasses on puts you at one remove from the characters.  The whole reason I love live theatre over cinema is that I want the direct contact with the singers rather than images of them.  Having to wear those wretched specs was the worst of all worlds.  Above all, I felt that this was gimmick.  You could use 3D in opera, but I didn’t feel that there was anything going on here that an imaginative stage director could have managed without employing a massive film crew at Lord knows what cost.

Michel van der Aa’s music struck me as very competent film music.  His lines sounded friendly to the singers and, where you could hear them, they were set idiomatically and intelligently.   There wasn’t a single moment where you felt interested in the music or any point of beauty or horror.  It wasn’t objectionable, had nothing to frighten the horses and nothing to interest them either.

The singers were good.  I thought Katherine Manley, as Zenna, apart from problems getting the words accross was excellent.  Ditto Claron McFadden as her foil, Iris Marinus.   Roderick Williams was, as ever, a comforting presence and it’s always a joy simply to listen to him.  I don’t think he could make any sense of his role but he’s one of those singers (Thomas Allen is another) who seems incapable of putting in a bad or unconvincing performance and you always wake up whenever he is on the stage.

André de Ridder conducted and appeared to hold all the various parts together.  Van der Aa also directed and technically managed the differences between stage and film adeptly without, as I I’ve suggested really managing to solve the technical problems of 3D in the theatre.

The friendly first night audience was enthusiastic but then I had the feeling that it was a very friendly audience.  There seem to be a fair number of seats available if you’re interested.  I can’t imagine it coming back again.

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