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?

Still from How to be Single
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Why is Britain falling out of love with Valentine’s Day?

Celebration of the “Hallmark holiday” is at an all-time low in the UK.

A recent YouGov poll found that only four in ten Britons will be celebrating Valentine’s Day this year. And – perhaps more tellingly, if, like me, you believe that Hollywood has a shrewd grip on the nuances of Britain’s collective attitude – this year’s Valentine’s Day romcom isn’t the usual boy-meets-girl love story, but a film about being single.

So are we falling out of love with Valentine’s Day? And why? It may be partially down to the financially independent self-proclaimed Bridget Jones generation. We’re living longer and doing it on our own; we’re all a bit more relaxed about the search for our significant other (and probably less inclined to say “significant other”).

Unmarried adults are now a majority for the first time, according to analysis of the 2011 census. In fact, the number of people living alone globally has increased by around 80 per cent in the 15 years leading up to 2011.

We’re marrying and having children later than we used to, divorcing with wild abandon and using apps to bring more efficiency to our dating lives. I’m 26, and I still feel panicky when someone chooses to take on any more responsibility than a Twitter account. But it was completely normal for my parents’ generation to be having babies at this age.

Our increasingly casual ways might just have rubbed off on our dating lives – in spite of apps supposedly making dating more accessible. An impressive 72 per cent of people would rather stay in and watch Netflix than go out, according to a recent study. OK, so that’s according to Netflix – but there’s no denying that we have been staying in and forgoing dating a lot more since that old recession.

One survey found that 59 per cent of men think Valentine’s Day is pointless. And of those remaining, one fifth think the most important aim of the day is to “get laid”. But men – and filmmakers – aren't the only ones to dislike the “Hallmark holiday”.

The burgeoning anti-Valentine’s movement – rebranding the day according to our beliefs – has the potential to kick more retailers to the curb than supermarkets’ enthusiasm for horsemeat (but more of that in my “Valentine’s gift guide for her” piece).

Bounce nightclub has run an anti-Valentine's party in London for the last three years, where the “bounce games gurus” dressed in their “love police” uniforms punish any “romance rebels” who don't abide by the strict anti-Valentine’s Day rules.

These rules include: no flowers, hearts, public displays of affection, emotional outbursts, pet names, sharing dessert, winking or whispering. And I’m assuming drugs are prohibited – no one wants to be tripping when they’re already in a room full of pretend police arresting people for unlawful eyelid movements.

But Bounce says its event has always sold out, and a spokesperson attributes its popularity to people increasingly preferring to socialise in groups, rather than in couples:

“Looking at sales this year, interest is far from dwindling. In general, there's been an increase in interest for group events as opposed to the traditional Valentine's event designed for couples.”

Another growing Valentine’s alternative is “Galentine’s Day”, which originated in 2010 from the show Parks and Recreation and is growing in popularity. The idea behind it is to celebrate the platonic love of female friendships in whatever way you and your gal pal wish.

This seems to be more positive rebrand of the single women’s Valentine’s boycott seen in the Friends episode of burning boyfriend memorabilia.

Last February, student Amelia Horgan helped to organise a very different anti-Valentine's Day party with her student union, as a fundraiser for her university’s local rape crisis centre. “The thinking behind it was that Valentine’s Day can be a really alienating experience for those of us who don’t, and don’t want to, match the standards of heteronormative romance,” she tells me. 

The party, she says, was “an alternative event that's much more fun than forgetting to book a reservation for dinner and sitting across from someone you've grown to silently resent, or sitting at home feeling worthless because you haven’t got a date”.

Perhaps a day celebrating traditional love is becoming more and more incongruous alongside an increasing openness towards discussing gender and sexuality.

We’re talking more about how sexuality transcends definition – a discussion that peaked in popular culture with model Cara Delevingne’s comments last year on the fluidity of sexuality. And then there’s Jayden Smith, who is becoming frontman for the increasingly blurred gender lines in fashion.

Valentine’s Day as we know it might be wilting, but I can’t help feeling more love for our willingness to replace it with something more fitting.