Dallas — An opera such as Michel van der Aa’s Sunken Garden is bound to generate buzz. The 3-D glasses audience members are issued at the door in the Dallas Opera’s U.S. premiere production is an indication that Marriage of Figaro this ain’t.
Familiarity with the often absurd and incoherent plots of 18th-century opera will serve operagoers well here, though. After all, the libretto is by novelist David Mitchell, best known for Cloud Atlas, an (arguably) spellbinding novel in which six separate narratives in six separate styles interweave (again, arguably) brilliantly — but in characteristically postmodernist fashion, the reader is left with more questions than answers by the end. So if you’re prepared for not having answers, you’ll be well set for a viewing of Sunken Garden.
Here’s what’s novel about Sunken Garden, which is directed by van der Aa: it melds elements of video, including 3-D video, with live singers and orchestra. The plot, if you can call it that, centers around a video artist, Toby Kramer (baritone Roderick Williams) who receives a foundation’s grant for his project about a vanished man, Simon Vines (baritone Jonathan McGovern, appearing only on film). His benefactress is Zenna Briggs (soprano Katherine Manley). Kramer then learns that another person, Amber Jacquemain (pop singer Kate Miller-Heidke, appearing only on film), vanished three months later. What the two missing people have in common: visits to a psychiatric hospital where Simon’s friend Sadaqat is a patient. Sadaqat is convinced that a psychiatrist at the hospital, Iris Marinus (soprano Miah Persson), is connected to the disappearances. Toby becomes increasingly obsessed with learning what happened to Simon and Amber.
Toby goes for a walk, finds a door in the support of an overpass, and naturally walks through.
He finds himself in the sunken garden (this is the point where the audience puts on 3-D glasses). The garden is a parallel universe, or “occult engine in the dusk between life and death.” Simon and Amber exist there, as holograms. Zenna is the creator of the garden. She just needs to commandeer a soul every three months, at the solstices and equinoxes, to fuel her garden and thus her immortality. She chooses people who have overwhelming guilt, to the extent that they are willing to wipe their memories clean in the sunken garden, and become holograms for six months before devolving into moths. (Yes, moths. Go with it.) Simon feels guilty about his daughter’s death from SIDS. Amber feels guilty for sending a Schadenfreude-text that induced her friend’s brain-damaging suicide attempt. Toby, the new recruit, feels guilty for assisting his mother’s suicide.
And then it gets really weird.
Dr. Marinus (Iris, goddess of the rainbow, get it?) appears, and challenges Zenna to a sort of duel. She has powers too, as it happens. Zenna agrees to a deal with Iris Marinus: she gives Simon and Amber a second chance, and Toby can return to earth.
Apparently, Amber still dies, Simon returns to life and becomes a skydiver, and Toby … well, Toby ends up in Zenna’s body, but also with her wealth. He’s not too happy about this.
Still confused? Little wonder. Watch this Opera in Brief video for a different take.
The big question: does all of this work? Answer: some of it does. The weird libretto is actually the least of my concerns with this opera. If you expect opera to make sense, you probably haven’t been to very many operas. And students of postmodern literature won’t see anything here that will seem that outlandish.
It’s the rest of it that’s the problem.
I write this with some trepidation, in case it is quoted in a biography 100 years hence as an example of a contemporary critic who “just didn’t get it.” But. Michel van der Aa’s score on first hearing has little to recommend it. It’s a percussion-heavy, rhythmically complex business that except for one central motif, seems musically limited and devoid of a center.
The video projections, by set and lighting designer Theun Mosk, seem gimmicky, especially the 3-D effects in the garden. The filmed singers in particular limit the expression of the live singers and the orchestra. Also, while the projections worked perfectly on Friday, Sunday’s performance had to be halted for a few minutes when the projections stopped working.
The orchestra, under conductor Nicole Paiement, did its best with what was clearly a difficult score, but at times it seemed fortunate that there was so much visual distraction.
Evaluating the vocal quality of the two filmed singers alongside the three live ones is a bit unjust—it’s impossible to know how much editing was done. But in general, Jonathan McGovern as Simon Vines has a pleasant but relatively ordinary voice by operatic standards, suitable for his Everyman character. Kate Miller-Heidke, a classically trained pop singer, had a somewhat wavery sense of pitch, that must have created issues for live singers and orchestra. Roderick Williams as Toby Kramer projected well without excessive vibrato, while Katherine Manley as Zenna Briggs seemed to struggle a bit both with singing and acting—there was no clear line between her wealthy benefactress persona and her guardian of the underworld self.
The vocal highlight was the comparatively small role of Miah Persson’s Dr. Iris Marinus. While Dr. Marinus does not appear until late in the opera, Persson steals the show with her steely, impressive soprano and her elegant blonde stage presence. She is, perhaps intentionally, the only character in flattering attire, as conceived by costume designer Astrid Schulz. Her pantsuit and French twist provide an appropriately businesslike contrast to Toby’s plain t-shirt and pants and Zenna’s two different midi dresses.
Go to Sunken Garden for the novelty, but don’t expect to be blown away by the score or, for the most part, by the singing.