English National Gizmo is back. The prevailing Coliseum precept that new commissions must include cutting-edge technology has taken ENO on a Barbican Theatre awayday for what they term "a film opera".
With hindsight the company may regret giving Michel van
der Aa a free creative hand on this project. The Dutch composer's credits for Sunken Garden include ‘music and film', ‘director', ‘film script' and ‘offline editing', but none of it stacks up to much of an opera - even though his collaborator, the novelist David Mitchell, shares the writing credits and is responsible (I imagine) for the work's creditable ambition to be a latter-day Tale of Hoffmann complete with an elusive character called Stella.
The story, which is flimsy yet convoluted, begins when
video artist Toby Kramer receives a visit from Zenna Briggs, an arts benefactor with cash to splash, who wants to help him pursue his quest to locate first one
then two missing souls, Simon Vines and Amber Jacquemain. Before long we are interacting via 3D glasses with a virtual environment of Eden-Project greenery where stage- and cyber-reality merge.
The impact of this meticulous weaving of worlds is
startling: it can be genuinely tricky to see where the one ends and the other begins, and five stars go to the technical team for pulling it off. But technical eye-candy is neither here nor there when the work it serves is so nugatory. There's a key plot twist late on in Sunken Garden that makes little impression amid all the visual noise while the music, which in opera ought to be
the primary means of expressive communication, is happiest when illustrating insect sounds.
A top-league team of stalwarts throws itself into the
action, such as it is, with abandon. Rock-solid at the heart of things is baritone Roderick Williams at his habitual best as Toby and bringing immediacy to his
music by grabbing every opportunity for naturalistic inflection as well as adding scenery-shifting to his portfolio of skills.
Katherine Manley (Zenna) and Claron McFadden (the
enigmatic Doctor Marinus) plot heroic paths through some meandering vocal lines while on video Jonathan McGovern sings beautifully as a near-corporeal Simon, as does Kate Miller-Heidke as a waif-like, other-worldly Amber, her voice apparently treated with a dusting of Auto-Tune to enhance the eeriness. Less happily, several
non-singing actors appear on video in a series of laboured faux-reportage interviews that fall short of good.
The last fully-staged operas I attended at the Barbican (though in the Hall, not the Theatre) also made heavy use of video imagery, but those were 2012's Oliver Knussen-Maurice Sendak double bill (Where the Wild
Things Are and Higgledy Piggledy Pop) and they wore musical boots that Sunken Garden cannot hope to fill. We already know that English National Opera commissions are rarely English; soon at this rate they won't even need to be operas.