It’s taken a while to be able to find the right words for this post – you know how sometimes when you experience something so amazing it can leave you speechless… Well I experienced Michel van der Aa’s Sunken Garden while in Amsterdam for a few days of Kulture with a Kapital K a couple of months ago and was lucky enough to obtain returned tickets at the box office on the night. To put this in context, I’d already attended two other strong performances – Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Muziektheater and the new John Adams oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary at the Concertgebouw – but I was ready for more!
I’d first encountered the music of Dutch composer and director Michel van der Aa by chance on the wireless – my usual diet of Radio 3 – and made a note of his name on the iPhone list app. So when I discovered that his new opera-film / film-opera Sunken Garden was going to be on in Amsterdam as part of the Holland Festival I was desperate to get to see it.
And it certainly didn’t disappoint! My immediate reaction was that it was the most powerful and moving performance that I’d ever seen, and now even after several weeks have passed I still feel the same. And I’ve seen a few! This was a new concept, blending 3D film with live opera, with the film projected in various ingenious ways on to the set, and live characters interacting with others living in the film. It must have taken quite a special creative imagination to come up with the idea, let along to bring it to realisation, and it was done brilliantly.
It was a stunning production in every way. The parts were well cast, with some extremely well observed character cameos, and the singers, including the ubiquitous and excellent Roderick Williams in the live lead, performed to perfection. The music itself was fantastic, with a similar mix of live musicians (Amsterdam Sinfonietta) and technology that had the effect of making a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. The plot – a futuristic mystery centring around the search for a missing person – was well constructed, and the libretto by Booker shortlisted British novelist David Mitchell was succinctly worded and well set. The 3D effects were jaw-droppingly spectacular, including one memorable moment when water from the vertical pool (what else?!) appeared to splash right into the auditorium.
But it wasn’t all special effects – behind the clever production and complex storyline was a simple yet important message, and one which speaks to everyone. I also found the wonderful music itself very moving, and this combined with the awesome visuals and well-told story made for an extremely emotional event. This is truly an opera for the 21st century, opening the door to an exciting future for musical theatre.
The work will be performed again at the Toronto Luminato Festival in June 2014 and Opera de Lyon in March 2015. If you have the opportunity to get to see it in either location, do go – you won’t regret it!