Sunken Garden at The Barbican

Image by Joost Rietdijk

Opera is a game of two halves. Bet that’s the first time you’ve heard that said in an opera review. But in the case of Sunken Garden, the “experimental” opera performed by the English National Opera and hosted at the Barbican Theatre, it really is.

The halves are quite literal. Although there’s no intermission, half way through the performance you’re prompted to don a pair of 3D glasses and enter the dreamlike world of an ancient sorcerer who ensnares the lonely, the broken and the sad, enticing them into a garden where their pain is forgotten in exchange for their lives, as she slowly feeds from their life energy, prolonging her own life.

“You’re like the euthanasia doctor who owns shares in her own clinic,” sings an even more mysterious, angelic figure — whose presence in the garden is never properly explained. In fact, a lot of things aren’t explained. But of course, this is an opera with a libretto written by David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas — a stunning book, but one of the most messy films of modern times. It was ambitious enough for Inception to attempt three stories in two hours — to attempt six stories in three in Cloud Atlas was a leap too far for most.

As is, I suspect, Sunken Garden, which explains why it’s received such mixed reviews. It’s hard to explain how an opera can seem so childishly simplistic and yet so horribly convoluted whilst also managing to be disturbingly brilliant all at the same time, but that’s precisely what Sunken Garden is — it tries, it experiments, it frequently falls flat on its face. But it never fails to entertain.

The question is, how do we get to the Sunken Garden — the dark place that haunts all our dreams. Befitting the dark thematic tones of disappearance, suicide, guilt, death and euthanasia, Mitchell has borrowed heavily from the noir genre to to create his story. His protagonist is a lonely video artist who lives in a shabby cellar, working on a documentary about the disappearance of an isolated loner and a society girl. Are the two cases connected? And what of the sunken garden the missing people dream of, a place of which our video-artist-private-eye also dreams? He’s even visited by a shadowy figure from a mysterious foundation, offering to sponsor his documentary. Only the shadowy figure turns out to be…

…No, I won’t spoil it for you. But I will warn you — when you enter the auditorium, along with your 3D glasses, the ushers also give away the entire plot. When you enter, you get handed a full synopsis, explaining what it all means.

And I guess that’s symbolic of the problem with this opera — it lacks enough confidence to stand on its own two feet.

Yes, it’s confusing. But you don’t need to be familiar with an opera to enjoy it — last month’s universally acclaimed production of Written on Skin at the Royal Opera House proved that. You can be experimental and trust your audience a bit. What you can’t do is let the performance descend into amateur hour — which Sunken Garden sometimes did.

It’s the lack of confidence. Contemporary art is constantly being lampooned, video artists are made fun of, patrons of modern art are made fun of, gallery owners are made fun of… even the use of 3D effects are made fun of. Stop poking fun at yourselves, guys. Beyond a certain point it just looks insecure.

It’s a shame that Sunken Garden is a convoluted mess, because it is, on occasion, utterly brilliant. Whereas contemporary operas such as Written on Skin or the Minotaur really follow the footsteps of an artform that’s been around for centuries, Sunken Garden genuinely tries to change what an opera means. It doesn’t succeed, but it’s brilliant for trying.

The biggest downside, perhaps particularly for classical music fans, rather than fans of the theatre, is that at times it felt like the classical elements were superfluous to what was going on. Mitchell’s verbose and clunky libretto dominated (even more than the special effects). The (superb) live cast were left singing along with two pre-recorded and digitised figures on screen, lending the feel of a semi-futuristic Japanese karaoke club. The orchestra were frequently forced to grit their teeth and accompany — and occasionally be interrupted by — recorded music, including an eardrum-rattling blast of dubstep. You can see why the purists didn’t like it.

This was a self-referential digital opera for a digital age. Like so much faddish contemporary art, it may not stand the test of time. But it will take you out of your comfort zone, and that’s worth the price of admission.

Ignore the harsh reviews. It may be a convoluted mess, but it may also be the most exciting piece of performance art you see this year.

Alastaire Allday is a copywriter in London and tweets @alldaycreative

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