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Michel van der Aa's new Sunken Garden, fusing opera with 3D film, travels from London to Amsterdam.

Sunken Garden, the new film opera by award-winning Dutch composer Michel van der Aa, was premiered by English National Opera at the Barbican Theatre in London in April, provoking something of a media storm. Moving from 2D into a startling 3D world and integrating singers and actors on video, a sophisticated electronic score and live performance from three singers and ensemble, the pioneering stagework proved controversial as much for its blurring of traditional genres as its multi-layered vein of fantasy.

The libretto by Cloud Atlas novelist David Mitchell is baroque in its complexity - a film-maker creating a documentary about missing persons is drawn into a dark web of clues leading to the sunken garden. Beneath its contemporary surface this is a classic opera plot: a sorceress traps souls in a magical realm and disturbing memories are progressively revealed.

While much of the critical response from UK opera reviewers was antagonistic, international music press, cross-genre columnists and bloggers were predominantly enthusiastic. There was no doubting the excellence of performance led by operatic baritone Roderick Williams on stage and pop vocalist Kate Miller-Heidke on film, with ENO forces conducted by André de Ridder. Whatever the range of reactions in London, the opera proceeds to a sell-out run at the Holland Festival in June, and future performances at the Luminato Festival in Toronto and the Opéra de Lyon.

“A fantastical tale to set the ears and eyes popping… the fusion worked here because of the rigour with which Mr. van der Aa assembled all of its parts… He links the musical and cinematic components of Sunken Garden deftly and intricately. Subtle hints advancing the mysterious plot are quietly strewn throughout the filmed sequences. Elements in the score link up precisely with details on screen… unquestionably a bold, rewarding venture that demands consideration.”
New York Times

“a remarkable fusion of sound and visuals, complete with stunning 3D imagery”
Evening Standard

“This is real drama and it works dramatically. The mystery is as complex as TV film noir. The spoken interviews work as film and the 3D successfully drew me right into the sunken garden. Crucially, it works as opera, with van der Aa’s fusion of musical styles matching the fusion of mediums…”

Sunken Garden is absolute state of the art opera and much more. The 3D techniques transcend any accusations of gimmickry. The three dimensional world inhabited by the main character, video maker Toby Kramer, is truly one of intoxicating beauty… Van der Aa has come up with a taut, subtle and beautiful score.”
De Volkskrant

“Simon (Jonathan McGovern) sings a lament for his baby, a cot death victim. This was a powerful aria: one of opera's most traditional ingredients leapt out of all the hypertech and cyberworld frippery and ambushed us completely, no 3D specs required. Yearning and weeping, his suffering was all the more piercing for its control and lyricism…True to form, Van der Aa's instrumental writing held one's interest throughout… Orchestral textures remained light and transparent. A large viola section gave mellow prominence to the middle range, while the ever-present trumpet cut through the delicate web of electronics and percussion.”
The Observer

“Every opera director racking their brains to find new directions for the genre would be well advised to programme Sunken Garden… Mr. Mitchell’s chatty dialogue unspools naturally, flowing in lyrical strands over bruised harmonies, fidgeting rhythms and patches of haunted stasis, played by a 26-piece ensemble augmented with subtle electronic effects… That all of this comes effortlessly together in perfect harmony is a fitting testimony to Van der Aa’s mastery.”
De Trouw

>  Further information on Work: Sunken Garden

Photo: Sunken Garden at the Barbican Theatre (ENO/Mike Hoban)

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