The Sunken Garden, English National Opera, Barbican, April 2013

This new musical work by Michel van der Aa, combines film narrative and a 3D visual world behind a screen, to a libretto by novelist David Mitchell. Novels are very different from opera librettos, which must develop the characters and story in relatively few words, and part of the problem with this one is that it was difficult to care what happened to these people.

All images ENO/ Mike Hoban

All images ENO/ Mike Hoban

There were three main ones: Toby Kramer a wannabe video artist, Zenna Briggs who pretends to want to fund his work but really wants to draw him into a strange world of disappearances, and Doctor Marinus who works in a psychiatric hospital. Roderick Williams as Toby sang with excellent diction, but the ladies with their high notes had more trouble, and were not helped by the orchestration. Surtitles were needed, and I heard the people behind me commenting afterwards that they didn’t understand what was going on. A story as strange and convoluted as this one has to be delineated very carefully to work on the opera stage, and a quick read of David Mitchell’s own synopsis hardly gives a luminous rendering of the plot.



One can of course sit back and enjoy the colourful 3D garden with its vertical pool, which comes in about halfway through, but friends who were on the side upstairs evidently did not see the same effects as I did from the centre stalls. In the Garden are two lost and vanished young people, Simon and Amber, both suffering terribly from guilt, and we see on-screen interviews with his landlady and her mother before they disappeared. It turns out that they are not the only ones to suffer from psychiatric problems, but I was rather past caring by that time.

This reminded me of Judith Weir’s unsuccessful Miss Fortune at Covent Garden last year, but it does not compare with the ENO’s Two Boys, despite a preview comparison that I read. That had a compelling story; this didn’t.

Distortion of the Garden

Distortion of the Garden

Katherine Manley and Claron McFadden both sang well as Zenna Briggs and Doctor Marinus, and the diction problem could and should have been solved by surtitles. Whether that would have made this rather opaque story more engaging I doubt, but it would have helped.

This ‘film opera’, co-produced by the ENO, Opéra de Lyon, Luminato Festival and Holland Festival, will doubtless attract favourable comments for the composer’s combination of music, film footage, and 3D electronic world, but the music is dull, and the libretto a serious weakness. Performances continue until April 20 — for details click here.

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