Michel van der Aa: 3D-opera Sunken Garden in NTRZaterdagMatinee

sunken Garden foto

In 2013, the ‘first 3D opera’ in the world was launched in the Holland Festival with a lot of fanfare. This fourth opera by Michel van der Aa (1970) got mixed reviews. Two years later the Dutch composer made a revised version for the Opéra de Lyon. Based on this, he wrought a semi-scenic performance that will be premièred in NTRZaterdagMatinee in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw on Saturday 21 October.

At the time I was impressed by the technology, less by the libretto and the music of Sunken Garden. Also I considered it somewhat too long. Hopefully the new version will be more convincing.

Here’s a translation of the review I wrote in 2013.

Crime & Punishment before, after and in Death

Amsterdam, 5 June 2013 – It’s hard to find a production that created such a stir as Sunken Garden by Michel van der Aa. After its première at the London Barbican Theater last April this ‘first 3D-opera’ was both called ‘soporific’, and dubbed ‘the future of opera’.

Therefore I curiously entered the Rabozaal of the Amsterdam City Theater, where I was given 3D-glasses and a note with instructions when to put them on. The string orchestra Amsterdam Sinfonietta was complemented with winds, percussionists and a keyboardist; the young André de Ridder conducting.

As in his previous opera After Life, Van der Aa takes us to the antechamber of death. Where in After Life the characters relive their dearest memory before finally passing into afterlife, in Sunken Garden they can escape their responsibilities. Amber Jacquemain caused the death of her rival in love, Simon Vines was asleep when his daughter died in the cradle, Toby Kramer committed euthanasia on his mother.

The three protagonists make different choices: Amber finally leaves for the empire of the dead, Simon decides to live on with his guilt and Toby is reincarnated in the shape of his benefactor/tormenter Zenna Briggs. She built the sunken garden to become immortal, but was counteracted by Doctor Marinus, who lost his life over this. In passing the Orpheus theme is addressed: Toby falls in love with Amber, whom he tries – unsuccessfully – to free from the underworld. This is visualized by a 3D explosion of brightly colored plants.

Also musically, Van der Aa expands on former compositions. He supports the story with functional sounds, whether or not combined with electronics. Long-drawn chords are interspersed with frantic sound eruptions, yet at times there’s more lyricism. His favored broken branches aren’t missing either. Striking is the use of a consciously nerdy sounding synthesizer, which evokes associations with the seventies. Amsterdam Sinfonietta and conductor André de Ridder were in excellent shape, but the music was too uniform to engage our attention for two hours.

The vocal lines are slightly less angular than in After Life, yet still mainly move back and forth between the high and low registers. Thanks to the recitative style and the great performance of the singers, the texts were understandable. With his warm baritone, Roderick Williams convinces as the tentatively searching artist Toby Kramer, the soprano Katherine Manley is great as the venomous, lightly hysterical Zenna Briggs and Claron McFadden shines as the desperate Marinus.

In the filmed parts the baritone Jonathan McGovern (Simon Vines) also holds our attention, though you unconsciously squeeze your ears shut during his larmoyant “aria” about his daughter’s death. The pop singer Kate Miller-Heidke moves us as the naïve-devious Amber Jacquemain, especially when her sultry vocal lines surface above the stampeding dance-beats that threatened to drown her earlier.

Unfortunately all music is amplified, sometimes resulting in distorted vocals. Moreover it creates distance, because you see an orchestra in the pit and singers on the scene, yet hearthem through speakers to the left and right of the stage. Identification with the characters is problematic anyway, because David Mitchell’s storylines are so complicated and far-fetched that after one and a half hours boredom creeps in. – But then it continues for another thirty minutes.

Sunken Garden is a brave attempt to search for new ways, but it seems unlikely this opera ‘will change history’, as Van der Aa’s alter ego Toby Kramer postulates.

The revised, semi-staged version of Sunken Garden will be performed in Concertgebouw on 21 October in the series NTRZaterdagMatinee and broadcast live on Radio 4. 

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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2 Responses to Michel van der Aa: 3D-opera Sunken Garden in NTRZaterdagMatinee

  1. Pingback: De 5 concerten die je niet wilt missen in Gaudeamus Muziekweek | Contemporary Classical – Thea Derks

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