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.