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

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

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Karen Bradley as Culture Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

The most politically charged of the culture minister's responsibilities is overseeing the BBC, and to anyone who works for - or simply loves - the national broadcaster, Karen Bradley has one big point in her favour. She is not John Whittingdale. Her predecessor as culture secretary was notorious for his belief that the BBC was a wasteful, over-mighty organisation which needed to be curbed. And he would have had ample opportunity to do this: the BBC's Charter is due for renewal next year, and the licence fee is only fixed until 2017. 

In her previous job at the Home Office, Karen Bradley gained a reputation as a calm, low-key minister. It now seems likely that the charter renewal will be accomplished with fewer frothing editorials about "BBC bias" and more attention to the challenges facing the organisation as viewing patterns fragment and increasing numbers of viewers move online.

Of the rest of the job, the tourism part just got easier: with the pound so weak, it will be easier to attract visitors to Britain from abroad. And as for press regulation, there is no word strong enough to describe how long the grass is into which it has been kicked.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.