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Criticising the critics: So who’s right about Sunken Garden?

Every single daily newspaper critic has cast the same verdict on Michel van der Aa’s new opera, Sunken Garden at the Barbican.

They don’t think it’s a proper opera. Rupert Christiansen wrote in the Telegraph: Seldom has it been my lot to endure anything so toxically flatulent as the drivel which splurges from this thing – I hesitate to grant it the honorific label of opera. Barry Millington in the London Evening Standard: the bewilderingly multi-layered plot and  arresting 3D visuals are complemented by such a dispiriting flattening out of music, text and stage action. Andrew Clements concluded in the Guardian: it’s never moving or engaging.



Despite these deprecations, the opera has virtually sold out its run and is guaranteed several more international productions. My own view of the work, seen in the semi-privacy of a dress rehearsal, is that it is several years ahead of its time and may represent the salvation of the genre. Sunken Garden is the first genuine 21st century opera. This is not so much an opera as a projection of what opera ought to be.

Brian Dickie, former director of Glyndebourne and Chicago Lyric Opera, is equally enthusiastic, posting on his blog:  It is worth the trip to the Barbican to see this new opera by multi-skilled composer, director, designer, video artist Michel van der Aa.  I thought the whole thing was a brilliant achievement in multi-faceted technical execution – he is clearly a substantial composer and you will (or should) revel in the music.

So what’s going on here? Why are all the critics of the same opinion? Are they all wrong, and me and Dickie right? Or vice-versa? Or something else?

I think it’s possibly to do with a question of expectation. Newspaper critics need to deliver an instant response to an awaiting space. Their point of comparison is past experience rather than future fantasy. They tend to play safe. Dickie and I, both free as birds, can afford to do the opposite.

But if the critics vote one way and the public another, that is a problem for the future of newspaper criticism.

UPDATE here.

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  1. Not really – any number of contemporary operas have been given warm to enthusiastic reviews, but been shunned by audiences.

  2. I saw your soundbite instantly appear at the top of ENO’s marketing email sent just hours after your post… they clearly had a “space to fill” although they managed also to find a few other favourabe critics for the same purpose (including the Grauniad and the Evening Standard).

    It’s interesting that it seems to polarise opinion. I think it comes down to what you expect from an opera. Clearly (though I haven’t seen it! judging from comments and reviews etc) the music is not the most important element in this one, but the special effects are, at least if the marketing hype is to be believed, i.e. calling it “the first 3D opera” does rather focus on the technical effects as the draw, and not on the drama, music, characters, sub-plots, back-story, etc etc that other people might rank higher on their list of essential ingredients for a good opera.

    Would it work in a town hall performed, “semi-staged”, by a local choral society plus ringers? I guess not. Does that matter? Equally, I guess not. But a bold new direction for opera? How does it compare to “Licht” for example? (or am I being a bit last-century?!)

    Norman are you still of the same opinion now that presuambly you are no longer “high on adrenaline”? :) I thought I detected a softening of your positive view but perhaps I was wrong.

    • Tim, I said from the start that it was a work in progress. Post-adrenaline, I believe it will grow with time, and the potential it creates for other operas is limitless.

  3. For what it’s worth, Brian Dickie was the General Director of the Chicago Opera Theater, not the Chicago Lyric Opera.

    It seems somewhat problematic to me to label this piece the first ‘genuine 21st century opera’. I can think of a handful of extremely important operas written in the last ten years that have been both critical and popular success stories…and which have made use of new technologies and sound worlds and combinations. The first that springs to mind would be Golijov’s Ainadamar, incorporating electronic sounds ‘played’ by a laptop with flamenco singing and orchestra. Another popular success has been Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick…which I can only judge from its success (I’ve not heard or seen it myself).

    May I ask your criteria for an opera to be considered ‘genuinely 21st century?’ This isn’t a rhetorical or snarky question, I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

    • One that uses all available technology, exploiting virtual reality and suggesting dimensions beyond the stage itself.

      • Lepage’s Ring does much of that – 3D technology, projections affected by touch, for example. Nevertheless, he was criticized for emphasizing technology. Of course, it would have worked better had the machine always worked. When it has, it produces spectacular effects (as your “intrepid reviewers” note).

      • One should be a little more vague, yet precise, when formulating definitions like that; otherwise “all available technology” would mean that you want every new opera to include, among other things, nuclear and hydrogen bombs detonating on stage.

        • MarK, thank you for making me spit coffee all over everything! Yours is the best comment I have ever read anywhere.

    • Even ahead of Ainadamar would be Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de loin – chronologically, if nothing else.

  4. Operatic history is full of works that were initially ridiculed, or disliked, usually because they upset peoples’ notion of what opera should be. Many are now part of the repertoire.
    Although I haven’t seen Sunken Garden, it appears to have simultaneously extended the boundaries of music theatre, annoyed the majority of music critics, and been a hit with the opera-going public. So it has a lot going for it! It sounds challenging; it re-imagines the form and structure of what an opera / piece of music theatre should be. That sounds stimulating to me, and it will no doubt act as a spring board for future composers (or maybe ‘creators of music theatre’ is a more accurate description).
    When one compares how the visual arts are constantly changing, and how they have absorbed such disparate areas as video, site-specific installation, and neon (to name but three), then it can only be a good thing that ‘opera’ is questioning and broadening what it is about. And the bottom line is, surely, that however popular the new forms are they are not going to supplant Janacek, Berg and Britten for a very long time (indeed, one hopes, never!).

    • Russell Plows says:

      I would dispute that it’s been a hit with the public. At the performance I attended, there was an increasing amount of shuffling up until the lukewarm applause for everyone but the orchestra at the end. The work has had an astonishing amount of clever publicity – and it certainly hasn’t been the reviews which pulled’ em in!

      • That was my experience. Applause lacklustre with a very noticeable surge for the orchestra.

    • As said before, it’s just Meyerbeer all over again. Opera without effective music isn’t opera but theatre.

  5. it is in the eye of the beholder.

  6. Rupert Damerell says:

    Do you (that’s anyone reading, not just Norman) think that these critics would have written differently – or would the newspapers in question have sent different critics – if the work had been termed “Music-Theatre” rather than “opera” ?

    • Indeed – and I seem to remember Norman suggesting something similar about Jonathan Dove’s “Flight” when it premiered at Glyndebourne. We can all sometimes get a little too precious about the “opera” tag.

    • Trouble is critics tend to operate within strict parameters; music, dance, theatre… maybe self-made, maybe constructed by editors. So who would cover music theatre?
      I remember a superb production of Handel’s ‘L’allegro il penseroso ed il moderato’ by Mark Morris, where the dance and the music were superbly balanced. In some papers it was reviewed by both the dance and music critics, but it was amusing to note the deference paid to each other, as if they were nervous of treading on each other’s toes.
      Arguably, Sunken Garden should be termed ‘music theatre’, and should be reviewed by ‘arts critics’ i.e. critics who have a critical interest and knowledge of all the arts – they do exist – and not by specialists who may feel they are in a straightjacket, or who may have an axe to grind.

    • David’s first point is spot-on.

      In this particular case, even if Sunken Garden had been called “music-theatre”, most outlets would have sent their opera/classical music critics – because (a) the presenter is English National Opera, and (b) Michel van der Aa is generally classified as a contemporary classical composer.

      In the relatively rare cases where a press outlet sends a critic from more than one discipline to review an event,* yes, each critic is very deferential to the other. Partly this is indeed an issue of turf and not stepping on each others’ toes (we all know that some critics can be divas).

      But I think it’s mostly because each of the critics is well aware that his/her colleague is the one who really knows his/her field. If I as a music critic review Morris’s L’Allegro and beg off discussing the dance, it’s to keep myself from making stupid mistakes in print writing about a discipline about which I know fairly little.

      * Regarding outlets sending critics from more than one discipline to cover an event: Mark Morris is one of only two artists I can think of for whom this happens regularly – and the reason it happens with Morris is that he pays good money for top-drawer musicians, so that his performances sometimes become musical events themselves. For instance, a Mark Morris Dance Group performance of L’Allegro or Four Saints in Three Acts might be the only opportunity a given city gets to hear those works live for a decade or more.

      The only other artist I can think of who regularly gets coverage from critics from multiple disciplines is William Kentridge, who works his genuinely newsworthy visual art into his genuinely newsworthy opera stagings. If you did not get the chance to see his production of Shostakovich’s The Nose at the Met in 2010, do not miss it this fall. Dates and times here; amazingly, the Met will be transmitting it in HD on Saturday 26 October.

  7. Friso van der Wal-Scheringa says:

    All of these discussions have made me extremely curious. Opera Today, Opera Britannia and Bachtrack have provided finely tuned positive judgement. In our Dutch quality paper ‘De Volkskrant’ the opera is reviewed as ‘groundbreaking’

  8. Friso van der Wal-Scheringa says:

    All of these discussions have made me extremely curious. Opera Today, Opera Britannia and Bachtrack have provided finely tuned positive judgement. In our Dutch quality paper ‘De Volkskrant’ the opera is reviewed as ‘groundbreaking’.

  9. Is it better than Thomas Adès recent opera *The Tempest*? That was superlative as contemporary operas go, but it didn’t have all the visual play. The dancing, singing, and his use of upper vocal registers all were highlights, and the only downside to the work was the sometimes numbing libretto, written in couplets, which sometimes plunged toward a nadir of banality even as the music it accompanied soared.

  10. I tent not to take too much notice of the critics and judge for myself what music I do or do not like. It is difficult as a critic may prefer the traditional rather than the contemporary.

  11. It most definitely wasn’t sold out last night as we were bumped unceremoniously from the gods to the stalls. I was very excited about this production but left bitterly disappointed, as did many people around me (I bumped into at least 4 friends, all of whom hated it). The story contained more holes than a piece of swiss cheese, the libretto was embarrassingly ‘witty’ (I’m sorry but nobody should ever have to sing about ‘Hedge Funds’), the action stilted, the vocal lines uninspiring. It looked pretty enough once the visuals kicked in but by that point I was so bored I was inwardly begging for an interval. This production isn’t what opera ought to be. Opera ought to be engaging and exciting – such as the work of Streetwise or OperaUpClose. 3D film is all well and good but if the music and story can’t match it in quality then it’s pointless. I love contemporary opera and didn’t read any reviews before I went last night. Unfortunately, despite the singers best efforts, nothing could have made this production interesting. Well, maybe apart from an interval..with ice cream.

    • Screen Name says:

      There is a one hundred plus wait list for the Holland Festival performances in early June ( sung in English with Dutch surtitles).

  12. “Seldom has it been my lot to endure anything so toxically flatulent as the drivel which splurges from this thing – I hesitate to grant it the honorific label of opera.”


    To me, that’s a fine example of crossing the boundary that separates legitimately harsh criticism from gratuitous abuse.

    A good critic should be able to explain why a piece or performance doesn’t work without resorting to vituperation. The quote Norman took from Barry Millington’s review is a good example: “the bewilderingly multi-layered plot and arresting 3D visuals are complemented by such a dispiriting flattening out of music, text and stage action.”

  13. Paul Kelly says:

    Is it as good as The Second Mrs Kong?

  14. Michael Wilkinson says:

    I saw The Sunken Garden last night.

    The music was better than Rupert Christiansen suggested, but he notoriously struggles to find anything positive to say about anything involving ENO, but the absurdity of the plot meant that I could not care a jot about the characters. It was as if the composer and – even more – the librettist were trying to be too clever. The result was a mess. Things were not helped by the lack of surtitles. In the first half the superlative Roderick Williams was crystal clear as ever (what a gem he is – surely among the top half-dozen British singers in any voice), but once the action moved into 3D he had little to sing and the female voices were almost completely incomprehensible, I suspect as much because of the music as in any failures of diction – Katherine Manley had been beautifully clear until that point.

    ENO are adventurous with modern opera and I have enjoyed so much of what has been done – last year’s Caligula was very fine – but I was happy when the lights went out for the end of this. Applause was polite and brief rather than warm and enthusiastic.

  15. Sticking my oar in here, knowing nothing about opera or the evidently tedious backstory of the ENO’s internal dramas.

    Rupert Christiansen is bang on. Sorry, but Sunken Garden was so far from being entertainment it made me angry. What really grated was the evident technical brilliance on show and the absolute abject failure to turn it into anything approaching an enjoyable show.

    All this ridiculous talk about 21st century opera and attracting new audiences makes me want to scream. We have video screens in our houses, people. In our actual houses. Putting a big one on your stage is not impressive (insert joke about compensating here), nor are visual effects that are at the dramatic level of an episode of original Star Trek. Why was that guy wheeling bits of set around? What were they for? Yanking on a bit of cloth that, ooh, was also on a screen…that’s just dumb. As for the music, well, again technically brilliant – and full marks to the singers – but there’s a lot to be said for giving an audience a tune they can hum. The integration of a live orchestra with electronica was spectacularly well accomplished – it’s just sad that by this point I’d ceased to care.

    In short, if you want people to spend their precious leisure time spending a fortune on these operas, you need to actually entertain the poor buggers.

    • Calum, I’d qualify what you say about the music being technically brilliant: the *execution* of the music was technically brilliant. The singers were committed, clear, beautiful; the orchestra played with vigour and precision; the electronica enhancing the orchestra was subtle and beautifully balanced; the cueing [sp?] was virtuosic, as was the balancing of the live amplification and playback; André de Ridder’s conducting was brilliant (from where I sat it was clear he had technique, charisma and energy, and the synching with the click-track seemed to be squeaky-clean).

      The composing, however, was C plus. Apart from the electronica, there was little I heard to raise it above the distinctly average. The language and gesture of the music was tired and general – no quirks, no voice, no wit, no scale, little *skill*. And certainly no dramatic arc – the slowness of the last massive chunk of music was a huge miscalculation. The most exciting stuff was the cued dance music played during the scenes where Amber was clubbing – the first time it came on, I though “Ah, here we go! At last!”.. but he spunked it. It stopped. It was not developed, recapitulated, changed, integrated with the orchestra….. If the audience want to know what style to expect, I can’t do better than “general contemporary”. This is no Adès, Benjamin (G), Adams or Barry.

      To repeat myself, I’m nonetheless glad ENO did it, and that I live in a culture where people dare to do work like this (I mean, the technical work). Equally, I’m glad the trains were OK but that’s beyond the scope of this blog.

      • There is an article on the Guardian which has a picture from the score for Sunken Garden, which I was interested to see:

        It seems that Mr Aa has not yet discovered flats! Writing diminished thirds instead of major seconds in a vocal part (or any part, really) is a bit perverse.

        • That depends, Tim.

          Writing diminished thirds instead of major seconds may be a bit perverse in a part for a piano that’s stuck in equal temperament (or any other fixed tuning).

          But in just intonation – which singers can easily use, of course – a diminished third and a major second aren’t exactly the same thing. One is slightly wider than the other.

          Would that difference be audible in an opera? If the singer has an operatic vibrato, maybe not, but a crack professional vocal ensemble or chamber choir could certainly make the distinction.

          So I’ll give Mr. van der Aa enough credit to assume that if he wrote diminished thirds instead of major seconds, it’s because he wants diminished thirds. (Whether he actually gets them is another matter.)

          • Yes that’s of course a fair point about just intonation, but if you look at the page of music it doesn’t seem like that kind of piece. The phrase for “Iris” is I think supposed to be quite a simple modal type of thing based on 4ths and 5ths, rendered weird-looking by using only sharps.
            (i.e. if it were spelt F – C – B flat – E flat – B flat – C – C, it’d be instantly more legible and would make a kind of conventional harmonic sense, but of course you’d have to consider the other parts too if you didn’t want to give the conductor / any analyst headaches.)

            Anyway – I’m in danger of looking like a grumbly pedant but having just edited a huge set of parts and score my eyes are currently attuned to this kind of “playability” / legibility thing!

      • Yep, you said what I meant with regard to “technically brilliant”. So much talent spent on so little.

        As for being glad ENO did it, to be honest I’m not. If the pinnacle of an artform is cheesy technical gimmickry and misdirected satire there’s something very wrong. Cheering accomplishments that, let’s be honest, movie makers and stage engineers produce day in and day out is missing out on what it is that makes an artform different and worthwhile in itself. I don’t object to integration of technology in and of itself but as a gratuitous technical exercise – frankly, I felt like “meat in the room”.

  16. “Despite these deprecations, the opera has virtually sold out its run and is guaranteed several more international productions.” So what? That does not say anything about the quality of the work. It only means the publicity worked and that it was attractive. As for the guaranteed performances, having paid what must be a very substantial amount, the co-commissioners were always unlikely to cancel the already-planned performances in any case.

    Some people (David above, and perhaps Mr L. too) seem to suggest that it was only the selected few critics who did not enjoy Sunken Garden while it was a “hit” with the public. I sersiouly do not think that is the case. I think the reviewers in The Independent, The Telegraph and The Financial Times have got it spot on. I do not think that the “opera” label had much to do with it. I certainly did not care whether it was one or not. I was there to see an artistic “production” (or “show”) and it was, as Andrew Clements described it, “never moving or engaging”.

    Please do not give Sunken Garden the benefit of the doubt by granting it the description of “several years ahead of its time”. It really does not deserve that excuse.

    • I am led to understand there was a best-seats-for-a-tenner company deal on last night. So, not sold out. No.

  17. I know that opera only works if it’s a fusion of all the elements of great theater – text, scenery, acting, etc. But nonetheless, it’s hard for me not to wonder …. is the music any good?

    • Russell Plows says:

      The music has been described as ‘vanilla’ – at it’s most adventurous it’s still pretty tonal and there is a tang of Sondheim or Adams about the rhythmic patterns. The orchestral writing is sound but the vocal writing seems to fall into deadening foursquare metrical patterns which kill any sense of momentum or excitment. For me, the only memorable moment was a low-key jazz inflected aria for Amber recorded on film…

      I think, Norman, it’s also worth remembering that every recorded element that’s introduced is likely to tie down and hamper the spontaneity of the live elements. The dullest show I ever saw was a Pet Shop Boys concert that was tied precisely and entirely to a film which showed the performers ‘offstage’. I really don’t buy that this is the way forward…

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