18 April 2013

Sunken Garden by ENO at The Barbican (spectacular)

This was a complex and confusing evening in many respects.

Firstly, I was there almost under pretext. The ENO Undressed scheme is meant to encourage new people to the opera but it is such a good deal that I applied for tickets and was very pleased to get two of the two hundred on offer for this opera.

The appeal was not so much the best seats for only £25, appealing though that was, but rather it was the extras that were thrown in like the pre-performance talk and the after party with members of the cast. These are things that I would pay extra for so getting them and a cheaper ticket was a bizarre bonus.

This was an ENO opera but staged at the Barbican, and not the Coliseum, as part of their out reach programme where they take the ENO brand to different locations to encourage people to follow them back to their home. 

The publicity for the opera focused very much on the mixed media used, including 2D and 3D film, recorded singing and electronic instruments alongside a normal orchestra.

The (short) pre-performance talk, by the composer Michel van der Aa, concentrated on the libretto novelist David Mitchell. This told us that the story starts in the real world and then moves in to a fantastic realm, the Sunken Garden.

Sunken Garden is the story of a struggling artist who is trying to make a film about somebody who disappeared. A rich benefactor pays him to continue his work and we see it grow.

Part of the performance is talking heads film clips; no music, just words. At times it is hard to think of this as an opera.

A big step is made when a second disappearance is uncovered, and that eventually lead him to the Sunken Garden.

And that is when we had to put our 3D glasses on. The effect was mind-blowing, even though I knew that it was coming. There was an audible gasp of surprise and delight from the audience.

The 3D film was shot in the Eden Centre and just moving around the plants in 3D was spectacularly effective. This had more of an impact on me than Avatar did.


We find the missing people in the Sunken Garden, but only on film.

There are some special effects to add to the already impressive mix, such as when water from the pond in the garden is splashed across the stage (apparently).


Amidst all this weirdness I found the music surprisingly normal. The main themes were familiar orchestral sounds, they brought Leonard Bernstein to mind, and these were enriched with fanciful noises and effects, not quite Hawkwind but you get the idea.

The Sunken Garden assaults the senses for 100 minutes (with no interval) giving so much to watch, listen to and to try and understand. It's hard work and all the more rewarding for being so. The understanding was the hardest part and even having read the synopsis afterwards I am still not sure about everything that happened, but that only makes me more interested in seeing is again.

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