Barbican Theatre, London

Classical review: Sunken Garden - Wrap up! There's a nasty little bug going around ...


Despite a fine pedigree, ENO's cross-breed is a bundle of flaws – unlike the career of one late, great conductor

Film and opera make an odd couple. However powerful the attraction, sometimes things just don't work out. Recent experiments in cohabitation have produced some startling results, from the breathtaking expressivity of José Montalvo and Dominique Hervieu's Les Paladins and the touching interplay of live and animated action in Netia Jones's Where the Wild Things Are to the Mexican stand-off of Mike Figgis's disastrous Lucretia Borgia.

Conceived as the first "film opera", with stage and screen fully integrated, Michel van der Aa's collaboration with the novelist David Mitchell, Sunken Garden, should have been a hit for English National Opera. The Dutch composer, film-maker and director has form in this field, interpolating filmed interviews with sung drama set in limbo. Sunken Garden again explores an interstitial environment, one in which memories can be erased, albeit at the price of the soul of the one remembering.

While the 3D film that takes up the second half of the opera packs a visual punch – most particularly in the splat of a giant mosquito, its legs dangling over the orchestra pit – the singers in front of it are left to flail around in the manner of B-movie actors from the 1950s. Crude movement direction is but one of several issues. There are modish clichés in the libretto, from the reclusive computer programmer to the dipsomaniac divorcee whose Eastern European cleaner accidentally bins a work of contemporary art.

More problematic than Mitchell's plot (a sci-fi Orpheus quest in which the hero can only return in another body) is the vocal writing, which delivers each syllable as though talking to an invalid. Orchestrally, Van der Aa offers torpid atmospherics, attempting to replicate the sound of the synthesisers that in any case dominate his instrumentation. Heroic performances from Roderick Williams (Toby) and Claron McFadden (Marinus) are wasted on a novelty of musical and dramatic banality.

The death last Sunday of Sir Colin Davis left the London Symphony Orchestra mourning the loss of "the head of the family". Though the conductor had looked increasingly frail in recent years, he was still capable of unleashing an extraordinary intensity, as his terrifying, tear-pricking performance of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony at the 2011 BBC Proms with Austria's Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra proved. Last Tuesday, the LSO performance of The Turn of the Screw burned with unusual ferocity under the baton of one of many younger conductors Sir Colin had mentored, Opera North's Richard Farnes; and the Royal Opera dedicated its revival of Die Zauberflöte to his memory.

With so much sorrow about, there is special pleasure to be found in Charles Castronovo's Dolce Napoli (King's Head, Islington, London *****), a tender, one-hour tribute to the music of the American tenor's Italian ancestors, squeezed around Castronovo's Covent Garden commitments as Tamino.

Grumps about the King's Head acoustic melt when you hear a voice as naturally beautiful as this, as closely as this, lamenting the infidelities of Caterina, Maria, and the other malafemmene of the Sicilian and Neapolitan songbooks. Life was hard in Southern Italy, but the music was sweet.

'Dolce Napoli', King's Head, Islington (020-7478 0160), 29 Apr

Critic's Choice

Top tenors go head to head as Jonas Kaufmann sings with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall, London, and Juan Diego Florez launches his Barbican residency with the LSO and Joyce DiDonato, both tomorrow (Sunday). Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra open their UK tour, also at the RFH (Mon), visiting the Anvil Theatre, Basingstoke (Tue), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (Wed). The all-Hungarian team is perfectly placed to capture the spirit of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra.

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