New Opera Shines Musically But Is Sunk By Libretto

Live singers Miah Persson (Iris) and Roderick Williams (Toby) with Jonathan McGovern (Simon) and Kate Miller-Heidke (Amber) in 3D video, the new wrinkle in Michel van der Aa’s ‘Sunken Garden.’ (Photos: Karen Almond, Dallas Opera)
By Mike Greenberg

DALLAS – Sunken Garden, an experimental opera by Dutch composer and video artist Michel van der Aa and British novelist David Mitchell, had some impressive blooms, musically and technically, in its U.S. premiere by The Dallas Opera. As a work of theater, it was more sunken than garden.

The one-act work (110 minutes if the technical gods cooperate) was first staged by English National Opera in 2013 and subsequently by the Holland Festival and Opéra de Lyon.

Live performers with the garden’s vertical pool, perturbed, in 3D video.

As in his previous three operas, van der Aa combines live staging (his own) with video (also his own) in Sunken Garden. The new wrinkle is the incorporation of 3D video scenes, with live singers sometimes performing duets or ensembles with others inhabiting a lush garden on a wide rear-projection screen or seeming to pop out of a mysterious vertical pool near the garden’s center. To the naked eye (well, naked but for the supplied 3D spectacles), the characters on screen looked as real as the live performers on stage, but the use of video enabled jump cuts and other special effects that would not be possible with live performers. As a proof of concept, the device succeeded admirably. One could well imagine 3D video being incorporated into productions of other operas that lend themselves to fantasy settings. (The video elements in this production were carried over from the London premiere.)

Toby shows Zenna a selfie video shot by Amber, describing her dream of a garden.

The fatal flaw in Sunken Garden is Mitchell’s libretto. Mitchell is a novelist of high repute. (He is perhaps best known for Cloud Atlas, which was the basis of a 2012 film.) Sunken Garden is his first libretto, and his inexperience in this highly specialized niche is impossible to ignore. The writing is stultifying in its verbosity, the plot is convoluted beyond redemption, and the exposition that’s needed to carry the plot points leaves little room for character development. There’s too much tell, not enough show. Worse yet, the libretto is a weight on the music – both the vocal lines and the instrumental score, a colorful, uncompromisingly modernist integration of electronic sounds with live orchestra.

If you must know something about the plot: Zenna Briggs shows up in the apartment of an aspiring filmmaker, Toby Kramer, and hands him a fat check to support his work in progress, a documentary about a fellow named Simon Vines, who has gone mysteriously missing. Kramer shows Briggs video clips of interviews with people who had known Vines. (These clips, and more that appear later, are spoken, without music; they prevent van der Aa’s score from gaining a head of steam or building a continuous arc. In the March 11 performance reviewed here, a technical glitch early in the show forced an eight-minute halt to “reset” the projectors.)

Toby (Roderick Williams) finds the entrance to the garden under an elevated road.

Kramer also has discovered a selfie video shot by a young woman Vines had met, Amber Jacquemain, who speaks of her dream about a sunken garden where she could be free from guilt. Amber, too, has gone missing. Kramer, now obsessed with the dreamed-of garden, somehow finds its entrance (a doorway plausibly set in a support column of a highway bridge). In the garden itself he meets the two missing persons, or rather their sometimes flickering shells. It turns out that the garden was created by none other than Zenna Briggs as an “occult engine” that saps its occupants’ souls and memories to sustain her own immortality. Another character, Iris Marinus, is determined to destroy it. Toby, Amber, and Simon in turn sing at great length of their feelings of guilt – essentially for being imperfect and non-omniscient humans – and their hope for innocence in the garden. Somewhere along the way Toby gets transferred into Iris Marinus’ body and voice, because she is actually … oh, never mind. Anyway, Simon has a change of heart. At the end, the garden disappears and we find him preparing to skydive from a waiting airplane. He has decided to forgo the temptation of innocence and instead embrace “this massive, unfair, beautiful, cruel, miraculous … World Machine.”

3D water droplets fly past Zenna (Katherine Manley).

One can see in Sunken Garden a core of Christian theology with the signs reversed. The return to the innocence of Eden is death; the world after the Fall, the real world of joys and sorrows and guilt, is authentic life worth living. It’s a promising concept, but Mitchell’s tortuous, tedious, and undisciplined execution obscures more than it reveals.

Perhaps because of the libretto’s long-windedness, van der Aa’s vocal lines seldom exceed a generic singiness, sometimes given to wide leaps at dramatic moments but often little more than recitative.

The singers deserved better material. Of the three live performers, the Swedish soprano Miah Persson made the strongest impression with her agile, gleaming Marinus. The British tenor Roderick Williams brought a honeyed voice to the role of Toby, and the British soprano Katherine Manley was convincing and vocally strong as Zenna. (Williams and Manley had initiated their roles for the London premiere.) All were gently amplified to be in proper balance with the two singers on 3D video. Still, the complexity and volume of the orchestral score left much of the text unintelligible.

The most arresting voice (albeit pre-recorded for video) was the preternaturally pure, straight, silvery instrument of the Australian mezzo-soprano Kate Miller-Heidke – she is also a pop singer – as Amber. The British baritone Jonathan McGovern sang pleasurably as Simon. The speaking actors in the “documentary” clips looked and sounded natural.

Zenna (Katherine Manley) and the vertical pool are angry.

There was much to like in the orchestral score. The composer commanded a wide palette of colorations (live and electronic) and rhythmic devices to complement the psychological situation, and some orchestral effects synchronized precisely with actions on stage or in 3D video. Conductor Nicole Paiement held it all firmly together. The orchestra responded with verve and polish.

The most memorable aspect of the production, however, was the 3D video, created by van der Aa with a technical support team numbering in the dozens. There were some wonderful disturbances of the naturalistic garden setting, especially in the transformations of the vertical pool, a sort of wormhole between the garden and the quotidian world. Too bad it can’t be repurposed for a more coherent opera.

The Dallas Opera production of Sunken Garden continues with performances on March 14 and 17 in the Winspear Opera House. For tickets and information, go here.

Mike Greenberg is an independent critic and photographer living in San Antonio, Tex. He is the author of The Poetics of Cities (Ohio State University Press, 1995). He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1986-87. He served as managing editor of Chicago Magazine and was a critic and columnist for a daily newspaper for 28 years.