Strong cast, high-tech wizardry can’t save weak libretto in Dallas Opera’s “Sunken Garden”

Sat Mar 10, 2018 at 2:12 pm
By Wayne Lee Gay

Roderick Williams and Katherine Manley in the U.S. premiere of Michel van der Aa’s “Sunken Garden” at Dallas Opera. Photo: Karen Almond

Dallas Opera has done its part in recent years to embrace and encourage high-tech opera in which 21st-century technology, including digital aural and visual effects, plays an essential, inherent role. The premiere of Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick crowned the company’s first season at Winspear Opera House in 2010; Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers provided a second look at what modern technology can accomplish on the operatic stage.

Michel van der Aa’s Sunken Garden provided the company’s third entry into the world of complex digital enhancement Friday night. Unfortunately, this U.S. premiere inadvertently demonstrated how high-tech opera can go seriously wrong.

With a libretto by David Mitchell, Sunken Garden attempts to examine weighty questions of the nature of life and existence. The vehicle is  a spooky tale of disappearance and forces from another dimension inserting themselves in human life, Set in present day England, complete with cellphones and highway overpasses (although one character makes an odd reference to family in Omaha), Sunken Garden centers on the attempt of grant-needy visual artist Toby Kramer (tenor Roderick Williams) to solve the mystery of the disappearance of ordinary bloke Simon Vines (Jonathan McGovern).

There follows a plot line more appropriate for an old-fashioned sci-fi horror thriller than an opera. Kramer, having visited a home for the mentally ill and a trendy art gallery in his search for answers, discovers a secret place—the titular sunken garden—between dimensions, along with non-corporeal creatures who devour human beings on a quarterly basis. There’s a vertical pool of water and a cat fight between two of the supernatural females, as well as subplots of sudden infant death syndrome and euthanasia. In the best B-movie tradition, Kramer ends up trapped in the discarded body of one of the female supernaturals. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

Along the way, the audience gets to participate in another retro-kitschy movie contribution to life and art, 3-D glasses. Sky-diving scenes that don’t have any apparent or metaphorical connection to the plot bookend the tale, with a tiny stab at something about how it’s really good to be alive after all, in spite of evil, soul-devouring spirits from other dimensions.

Librettist Mitchell apparently never got the message that there are two elements that hardly ever work well in opera: over-complicated plots and self-conscious profundity. Ironically, these multiple dimensions are populated by disappointingly one-dimensional characters.

In spite of being burdened with a poorly conceived plot, composer van der Aa produced a colorful, singable score, with mild dissonance reminiscent of the better horror movie scores (think John Williams’ music for Jaws). The orchestra, under conductor Nicole Paiement, navigated the complexities neatly.

The singers, while acting out these weak roles as best they could, delivered uniformly fine vocal performances: baritone McGovern provided the requisite creepy head voice at key moments and baritone Williams projected a fine, beautiful tone in the title role.

Mezzo-soprano Kate Miller-Heidke took a turn at pop style in the work’s one memorable aria, “I Had These Dreams,” and shifted easily and impressively to a more operatic voice. Sopranos Miah Persson and Katherine Manley delivered solid performances as well, particularly in their dueling grand finale conflict.  Among the actors appearing on film only, Stephen Henry, Caroline Jay, and Alwyne Taylor were delightfully comical as, respectively, the crazy guy at the asylum, the equally crazy lady with the art gallery, and the nosey landlady, respectively.

Composer van der Aa also directed; Theun Mosk’s sets, effective within the parameters of the plot, included steel-framed cubes for the real world and, in contrast, hyper-realistic foliage for the otherworldly garden. Not surprisingly in our fast-moving world, some visual elements, such as cellphones from 2012 in the film segments, are already obsolete. Likewise, much of the technology involved in a show of this sort will doubtless be replaced by newer technology in the years ahead, rendering Sunken Garden even more obsolete than it already is.

Ultimately, the melding of elements of cinema, opera, and digital technology holds great promise for opera, as evidenced in the afore-mentioned Moby-Dick, which will likely hold its own in the operatic repertoire. Sunken Garden, meanwhile, proves that all the bells and whistles of technology can’t save a poorly conceived storyline.

Dallas Opera’s production of Sunken Garden will be repeated 2 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. March 14 and 17 at Winspear Opera House.

One Response to “Strong cast, high-tech wizardry can’t save weak libretto in Dallas Opera’s “Sunken Garden””

  1. Posted Mar 12, 2018 at 12:19 am by Dr. Cynthia Curry

    Ah, the beauty of art that it can speak so differently to us as individuals! With this opera operating simultaneously on multiple dimensions, for me, the most powerful was the metaphorical and allegorical, a literary device used as poetry to communicate such universal themes as human suffering, tragedy, and guilt. Liminal space (sunken garden, the vertical pool of water) served as a metaphor for the myriad ways in which we can “disappear” from life, inhabiting that “in between space” between life and death, with the viewer invited into that emotional landscape of avoidance and denial visually via the use of 3D. I found it to be a cutting edge opera, with technology utilized to expand the storyline, to quite effectively draw the viewer in as visceral participant to a highly emotionally evocative story line, with the “mystery” component the most superficial layer of a multidimensional operatic experience. The opera reflected life itself… rapid developments, mystery, uncertainty, sudden twists and turns, confusion, discordant harmony and even the contemporary of our rapid fire change and shortened attention spans that the multiple media sources so effectively communicated and addressed.

    The last sky diving scene, rather than having no metaphorical connection to the plot, in my view, was the very heart of the plot, demonstrating the growth and development of one of the main characters, a phoenix rising from the ashes who moved from an understandably human rejection of life after the tragic death of his infant son, a “hell” on earth based on the most searing of parental guilts, to ultimate choice and acceptance of the limits that this life of ours can afford, a transformational capacity to accept life on life’s terms, to look for the shards of light that do exist, to allow for hope, to be open to new love and yes, even experience the exhilaration of the dive. A symbol of the far-reaching, big picture view of our basic human interconnectedness, the scene of the landscape from afar visually placed our suffering firmly within the midst of the universal order….and at the very end, trapped still and ultimately in our mortal bodies, male/female, defined or ill defined, whoever we are, wherever we are, transformed or not… with fate the ultimate limit juxtaposed against a human backdrop of spirit.

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