Staged by the English National Opera, and described as “an occult-mystery film opera” by its Dutch composer, stage director and filmmaker Michel van der Aa, it is a provocative combination of live performance and cinema, fused in subtle and arresting ways.
Dig beneath its modern trappings and eye-popping 3-D film effects, though, and you find a remarkably conventional core. Based on an original libretto by the novelist David Mitchell, whose critically acclaimed “Cloud Atlas” was made into a big-budget Hollywood film last year, “Sunken Garden” is positively old-fashioned in its idiosyncratic depiction of a flawed hero seeking to rescue a fair maiden imprisoned in a fairy-tale land by a mysterious sorceress.
Ambitious collusions of live performers and interactive video are not intrinsically a great leap forward for opera, as anyone who was disappointed by Robert Lepage’s troublesome rendition of Wagner’s “Ring” at the Metropolitan Opera can confirm. But the fusion worked here because of the rigor with which Mr. van der Aa assembled all of its parts; the brilliance demonstrated by dozens of collaborators and technical colleagues; and the excellence the singers and actors brought to their tasks, onstage and on screen.
Mr. van der Aa, who recently won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for his multimedia cello concerto, “Up-close,” and the Mauricio Kagel Music Prize for his interdisciplinary oeuvre, links the musical and cinematic components of “Sunken Garden” deftly and intricately. Subtle hints advancing the mysterious plot are quietly strewn throughout the filmed sequences. Elements in the score link up precisely with details on screen, as when Sadaqat’s nervous tapping on a business card becomes a percussive tattoo in the music.
Mr. Mitchell’s chatty dialogue unspools naturally, flowing in lyrical strands over bruised harmonies, fidgeting rhythms and patches of haunted stasis, played by a 26-piece orchestra augmented with subtle electronic effects. A filmed scene depicting Amber in a nightclub is set to convincingly kinetic dance music. André de Ridder, conducting with a click track and using a score that incorporated images from the films, held all of the elements together with impressive precision.
The opera’s three live singers, unobtrusively amplified to match their on-screen counterparts, were superb. Roderick Williams, a mellifluous baritone with a sweet, secure top end, handily conveyed Toby’s determination and perplexity. The soprano Katherine Manley was a vivid Zenna; another soprano, Claron McFadden, did sterling work in the inconclusively drawn role of Marinus.
Two singers on film, Jonathan McGovern and Kate Miller-Heidke, were equally compelling. Mr. McGovern, a lyrical baritone, was a heartbreaking Simon, and Ms. Miller-Heidke, a classically trained Australian pop star, was a luminous, mysterious Amber. Standouts among the non-singing characters on film included Stephen Henry as Sadaqat and Caroline Jay as Portia. (It was pleasantly discombobulating to see the cinematic characters appear in costume during the final curtain calls.)
“Sunken Garden,” despite its contorted revelations and desultory conclusion, is unquestionably a bold, rewarding venture that demands consideration.