Opéra de Lyon, 2015
Etienne Siebens, Michel van der Aa, Roderick Williams, Katherine Manley, Claron McFadden, Jonathan McGovern, Kate Miller-Heidke
TNP, Lyon - 15 March 2015
One of the benefits of seeing a modern and fairly experimental new opera like Michel van der Aa's Sunken Garden as part of the wider context of Opéra de Lyon's 'Les Jardins Mystérieux' opera mini festival is that it helps put it into context, highlighting and contrasting it with other works on a similar broad theme. Here, Sunken Garden is set alongside Franz Schreker's Die Gezeichneten and Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, and surprisingly the comparison does tend to work in its favour.
Having only heard Sunken Garden previously on a BBC Radio 3 broadcast during its premiere performances at the English National Opera in 2013, it didn't really seem to work as a conventional opera. Even more so than other operas, this was however clearly a work where the visual component is just as important as the music, if not more so. Involving a number of other different disciplines and embracing all kinds of new technology, radio obviously wasn't really the right medium to explore a 3-D film-opera. At its French premiere in the Théâtre National Populaire in the Villeurbanne suburb of Lyon, 'Le jardin englouti' clearly worked well on the stage and received a much more enthusiastic response from what looked like a sold-out performance.
Seen fully-performed, some aspects however, such as David Mitchell's compendium of stock phrases and banal cliches that represent 'the way real people speak', still grated, but these were probably not as evident to a French audience. When viewed in performance, the supernatural elements of the story, built-up through the dialogues of a small cast and with filmed interviews sections, comes across even more so as having the whole look and feel of an average episode of Doctor Who. In the context of the Mysterious Gardens festival however, and particularly having watched an ambitious staging of Orfeo ed Euridice at the Lyon Opera House just the previous night, it encouraged one to think a little more about the content and themes of the work.
If you can get past the banalities of a plot where a meglomaniac evil villain seeks a means of achieving immortality by capturing the souls of others and holding them in a 'sunken garden', essentially it's no more ridiculous an idea than a hunchback dwarf creating a paradise for decadent nobles to indulge their corrupt lusts, or for a musician to journey to Hell in the hope of bringing his beloved wife back from the dead. Regardless of the musical means and the technology used to put this across, similar themes are explored in Sunken Garden, and they do have rather more weight and meaning that could easily be missed in dazzle and colour of the spectacle, although ideally it ought to enhance them.
Sunken Garden is about secret places, the kind of secret place that one wishes they could withdraw to when faced with the horrors or even just the difficulties of everyday life when it gets too much to deal with. Like Orpheus, Toby Kramer is an artist who has suffered loss after the death of his wife, and seeks to find answers or some kind of solace in his work. A multi-media artist, Kramer is pouring his energies into a new project based on the real-life disappearance of a young man, Simon Vines, filming interviews with friends, trying to understand what could have motivated someone to choose to leave a successful life and career behind him, if it was even a choice he made himself. A wealthy donor, the owner of an art gallery, is fascinated by Kramer's work so far, and willing to keep providing him with funds to expand it into a 3-D film.
The longer Kramer works on the project, the stranger the disappearance of Simon Vine appears, the artist discovering documents and footage on a mobile phone that suggests that Vine's former girlfriend Amber Jacquemain has also disappeared. Dealing with his own loss, Kramer's personal involvement in the work deepens, much to the frustration of Zenna Briggs, the representative from the art gallery who is getting impatient with the slow progress of the project. Eventually, Kramer discovers that Simon and Amber have both been abducted, their souls being sucked dry to fuel a sunken garden in another dimension to feed the desire of a villain who wants to be immortal, a person he already knows.
As ludicrous as it might sound, Sunken Garden does in its own way - and really not so different from the ambitions of Alviano Salvago and Orpheus - seek to create a paradise that takes one away and makes one immune from the horrors and tyranny of everyday existence. Ultimately Kramer has to decide whether he wants to cut himself off from the world, initially through his never-ending art project, and then in some manufactured world of technology (seeking solace and escape in technology is a major theme here and the entire raison d'être for all the 3-D technology in the film-opera itself). The realisation that there is a downside to any ambitions to create a paradise outside of the boundaries of natural order is one that Kramer, much like his counterparts in Die Gezeichneten and Orfeo ed Euridice, has to eventually accept and come to terms with, but it's not an easy decision to make.
Visually then, the sunken garden must be an alluring but slightly sinister place, and the impressive 3-D film technology used by Michel van der Aa does that very well, justifying its use as much more than a gimmick. The composer is well-known for his efforts to expand the range of lyric drama and musical expression, and as such it's not so much a question of attempting to progress opera into new directions, as much as making best use of all the resources available now that will allow full expression of the ideas of the subject. Assessing the value of Sunken Garden as a purely musical drama is not really relevant either. It's only one small part of a much more widely-encompassing view of opera as music theatre. On its own the music might not be particularly memorable, but it is eclectic, and doesn't feel constrained to fit old models of expression, using sequencers and sound effects as well as more traditional instrumentation, freely borrowing from a wide range of modern influences (Radiohead being an acknowledged inspiration).
Whether this means that the work has any place in posterity doesn't seem to be foremost in the mind of the composer/director/filmmaker either - although its revival here for Lyon is a good sign. Van der Aa's concern seems to be solely with putting the work across in the most effective way with whatever state-of-the-art means are available now, and it's a highly effective and imaginative stage production. If it is revived in the future, a production doesn't necessarily need to use 3-D or the same pre-recorded filmed performances - two of the singers don't appear in person here - but, much like the reinventions of older works for the modern stage (to again go back to the extraordinary Lyon production of Orfeo ed Euridice), it can be freely reinterpreted using whatever new technology is available. Whatever means is used - whether that's holograms or use of other dimensions (hey, who knows?) - the message about the misuse of technology and its incompatibility with human nature will surely still be relevant.
Links: Opéra de Lyon