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?

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear