Reviewed: Sunken Garden and The Turn of the Screw

Never mind the gimmicks.

Sunken Garden; The Turn of the Screw
ENO, Barbican; LSO, Barbican

Nostalgia and novelty have collided this month in classical music. It seems strangely apt that the week in which the “first 3D opera” premiered at English National Opera should be the one in which we lost Sir Colin Davis, one of the great conductors of the 20th century. The white-tie-and-tails world of opera 60 years ago has morphed into the hipster variant, being set up in pubs, clubs and warehouses. Opera has come a long way but has it all been progress?

“3D opera” is a PR gimmick. All opera is three-dimensional, that’s the beauty of a genre that lives in the live moment, the shared breath between stage and audience. It’s an odd paradox of technological innovation that the more we chase immediacy, the further we flatten the world into the digital confines of simulation and counterfeit.

Sunken Garden, a collaboration between the novelist David Mitchell and the Dutch composer Michael van der Aa, wisely acknowledges this. A technological thriller, the story encodes its own limitations, teaching us to treat any digital Eden with suspicion, to doubt human truths that come edited and soundtracked in an artistic video package.

Yet somewhere in the creative process these two seem to have been seduced by their own illusions; Sunken Garden offers us magical visions, visual trickery and plenty to keep our hyperlinked minds occupied but what it jettisons is emotional truth. Not even the excellent performances of Roderick Williams (as the video artist Toby) and Katherine Manley (Zenna, his patroness) can find authenticity in the mirage. Van der Aa’s score delights in simulated electro beats and aural moodmanipulation. The result is a beautiful curiosity, an empty experiment, rather than the vital new blossoming opera needs to survive.

It was a telling contrast to return to the Barbican a few nights later for a concert performance of Britten’s The Turn of The Screw. Originally due to be conducted by Davis, it became a tribute to him by the London Symphony Orchestra. With its chamber forces and shorter length, fully-staged performances of Britten’s opera are hardly thin on the ground. So why perform it in concert?

The answer is one that Van der Aa could do well to ponder. This was a ghost story told in broad daylight. No shadows or ghosts could maintain their mystery on the platform of the Barbican Hall, yet such is the vivid potency of Britten’s score and the skill of its performers here, that there can have been few not stirred by the menace of the tale.

Composed as a world unto itself, barely resting its fingertips on the guiding thread of Myfanwy Piper’s libretto, the score takes the pastoral musical idylls of Vaughan Williams and Bax and curdles them. The chamber ensemble is dominated by its wind, and the soloists of the LSO took up their characters as gamely as the singers. Christopher Cowie’s oboe took us from innocent folk-purity to the feral urgency of Pan, while Rachel Gough’s bassoon subverted the euphemistic beauty of Adam Walker’s flute. Directed by Richard Farnes, the orchestra may have had unusual prominence (no pit to aid illusion here) but such was their clarity of musical intent that it only aided the soloists in spinning the story.

Andrew Kennedy is a tenor made to sing Peter Quint. The ghastly, ghostly purity of his opening narration, telescoping several chapters of James’s original into a few minutes, cements the tragedy before we even begin, and once captured, Kennedy held his audience all the way through to his horrible climax. Sally Matthews’s governess was no less insidious, building from a tense start to fully abandoned psychosis. Supported by Catherine Wyn-Rogers (as an unusually lovely-voiced Mrs Grose) and Katherine Broderick (Miss Jessel) this became a strikingly female take on the tale, pitting serious vocal forces against the hollow core of Quint.

Opera desperately needs creative thinking and risk-taking if it is to survive in an ever more clamorous artistic marketplace. But with quick-thrill computer games and 3-D cinema steps ahead technologically, surely opera’s unique selling point is precisely its analogue reality. That which film, television and animation are striving to achieve already belongs to opera. We should be celebrating humanity, emotional directness, physical presence, not blindly tagging along behind these other disciplines and banishing our singers to pre-recorded alternative realities.

Above all, we mustn’t forget the music. In all this talk of “film opera” and “3D opera” van der Aa’s score has become overlooked. What both Britten and Davis understood is that if you get the music right everything else falls into place. All the budget and technology in the world will never better a thrilling live performance of a good score. I’d pick the withered lawns of Bly over van der Aa’s lush Sunken Garden any day.

The ENO's "Sunken Garden". Photograph: ENO/Joost Rietdijk

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
Show Hide image

The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle