Saturday, 13 April 2013

Michel van der Aa - Sunken Garden

Sunken Garden
Kate Miller-Heidke & Jonathan McGovern; Photo by Joost Rietdijk
Michel van der Aa is a young Dutch composer and film-maker whose stage works mix live action and film. His music-theatre piece After Life (based on the Hirokazu Koreeda film Wonderful Life), used filmed interviews integrated into the live action. His latest music theatre work, Sunken Garden, (described as a film opera), is a co-commission between ENO and the Barbican, Luminato Festival and the Opera National de Lyon, with the co-production also travelling to the Holland Festival. Sunken Garden, van der Aa's fourth music-theatre work, is the first on which he has worked with a collaborator. The novelist David Mitchell wrote the libretto. Mitchell is the author of the best selling novel Cloud Atlas, but also wrote the libretto for Klaas de Vries' opera Wake performed by Dutch National Reisopera in 2010. Sunken Garden was premiered by ENO at the Barbican in a production designed by Theun Mosk and directed by the composer, with film sequences (including those using 3 D film) also directed by the composer. The singing cast consisted of Roderick Williams, Katherine Manley and Claron McFadden seen live, plus Jonathan McGovern and Kate Miller-Heidke seen on film. There was also a cast of actors seen on film (Stephen Henry, Harriet Dobby, Alwyne Taylor, Joanna Bond, Caroline Jay and Yiftach Mizrahi). Andre de Ridder conducted. We caught the much anticipated premiere on 12 April 2013.

One of Mitchell and van der Aa's stated aims in the work was to integrate 3 D film in a way which was integral to the plot and did not seem to be a gimmick. The first three scenes depict the visits to film-maker Toby Kramer (Roderick Williams), by Zenna Briggs (Katherine Manley) from a philanthropic foundation which is supporting Kramer's documentary about the mysterious disappearance of a young man, Simon Vines (Jonathan McGovern, only ever seen on film). At each visit Kramer plays Briggs excerpts from filmed interviews, these are spoken interviews with the actors. Gradually something mysterious becomes apparent, and Kramer, who is seems damaged in some way, becomes obsessed with Amber Jacquemain (Kate Miller-Heidke, only ever seen on film) who has also disappeared. Footage of Amber from her mobile phone shows her talking about her dreams of a sunken garden. Kramer has these dreams too.


The depiction of the sunken garden, existing half-way between life and death, is cue for the 3 D film, with the singers standing front and interacting with it. Amber and Simon are trapped in the garden, and there Kramer meets the strange psychologist Iris Marinus (Claron McFadden), who turns out to be a force for good. The maker of the garden is revealed as Zenna Briggs, who uses its force to feed her own life force and keep her immortal, consuming the souls of lost beings such as Amber and Simon. There is a denouement, Amber and Simon are set free and we discover why they are so troubled, Amber chooses death but Simon chooses life. Toby Kramer survives the destruction of the garden, but trapped in Zenna Brigg's body. The work finishes with a film of Simon doing a sky dive.

The production, with its use of film, was dazzling with extensive use of film and projection, even Toby Kramer's flat was done as film projection. Though the 3 D film was visually striking the interaction between film and live singers was a bit clunky with van der Aa as director not quite solving all the problems which van der Aa as composer had set himself. This was one of many times when I wondered whether it might have been wise to use an outside director to piece.

Van der Aa and Mitchell's intention was that the first three scenes, before the scenes in the Sunken Garden, should allow us to get to know the protagonists and come to care for them before they enter the garden. Mitchell's libretto was plain enough, with enough space to allow the composer fill the gaps with music. But repeatedly during the first three scenes I kept coming back to George Benjamin's pertinent comment about contemporary opera in my interview with him. That he kept worrying about why these people were singing and not speaking. 

Simply, as a composer van der Aa never solved this conundrum  The most engaging sections of the first three scenes were the filmed (spoken) interviews, particularly Stephen Henry as Sadaqat Daastani who lives in a psychiatric ward. Van der Aa's vocal lines were singable, with rather a rather striking angularity to the music. His orchestral accompaniment was striking, with the inclusion of found noises into the textures. But the pace was fatally steady and the music never seemed to develop the personalities. The sung dialogue chugged along steadily enough, with a bland unvaryingness which made you long for change. Only at the very end of the scene three, when Kramer admits that he has become obsessed with the disappeared Amber do we get any sort of depth, and it is fatally too late. The tempo of the music was generally steady and rather unchanging, and what variation there was came from the orchestra, not the vocal lines; the only really up-tempo scenes were the ones where Amber was in a disco.

The scenes where the live singers interacted with the filmed ones were very striking, and Kate Miller-Heidke, who has parallel careers in the pop and opera worlds, was very striking on film. The moment when she (on film) duetted with the live Williams was very striking, perhaps more striking for its cleverness than the musical content.

Science Fiction as a genre requires the author to provide a coherent framework on which to build the story. Turning Science Fiction into opera is a tricky skill, it requires the writers to compress the back story but still make it convincing. I am sure that Mitchell and van der Aa have a convincing and quite brilliant back story, but in the performance this was not always apparent. This meant that when we encountered the psychologist Iris Marinus (Claron McFadden) in the Sunken Garden we didn't really know who she was, or why she was there. And quite how she has such power over Zenna Briggs, to destroy the Sunken Garden, was not clearly apparent.

This was a shame, because the scenes in the Sunken Garden were some of the most musically striking in the opera. But for me it was fatally too late for the music-drama, I just didn't care who these people were and why they were there despite the brilliant work from the cast.

Running at over two hours without an interval, the piece was far too long. Here was come back to the fact that van der Aa was his own director, I felt that we needed an outside figure to critique the piece. Van der Aa's direction was fluent, but never questioned the basic work which I think was needed; it is essential in the development of new opera. A good director can re-shape a piece and pull it into focus, something that Sunken Garden lacked.

I did wonder whether van der Aa had felt constrained by having to write the work for opera companies. The opening three scenes felt as if they ought to have been written with spoken dialogue, underscored by van der Aa's expressive orchestral writing. This would have lent greater speed and immediacy to these scenes, using singing just for the contemplative moments. The work felt that this was what it ought to be.

The live cast worked very hard. There were no supers, so that Williams in particular had to spend a lot of time moving the framework of the set about. Williams was superb as Kramer, bringing intense commitment and believability to the role. That he failed to make us really care was the composer's fault, Williams did nearly succeed. Katherine Manley was equally impressive and managed to make the transition from haughty philanthropist to demented soul-eater. McFadden was simply brilliant, bringing intensity and commitment to her role, making us believe despite the holes in the plot.

On film Miller-Heidke neatly brought out the otherness of Amber and McGovern was touching as Simon, the six actors were all nicely characterful with the best, and funniest, moments coming from Stephen Henry and Caroline Jay (as Amber's mother Portia).

Andre de Ridder conducted with aplomb, keeping all the disparate elements together.In the pit the 25 hard working members of the ENO orchestra conjured some magical textures. Simon Hendry was credited as video and audio player and there was a sense of the live and recorded sound blending magically in a way which did not quite happen on stage. The whole, including the singers, was clearly miked and mixed to create a seamless audio image.

For all the brilliance of his earlier music-theatre works, I do not feel that in Sunken Garden Michel van der Aa has solved the problems of how to integrate live and film, and how to make the sung elements sufficiently expressive. This was a fascinating evening, with some simply dazzling visuals, but I think it was too pleased with its own cleverness. For me it ultimately neither moved me nor made me care. Two hours was far too long and frankly, my bottom was profoundly relieved when the piece ended.
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