If ambition were the marker of quality then this would be a five-star show. Unfortunately, Michel Van der Aa’s film-opera involving three live singers, two virtual ones and an interactive 3D film, telling a tale of a filmmaker in search of a missing person, remains a very static affair.
Setting a libretto by ‘Cloud Atlas’ author David Mitchell, this fantastical ‘occult-mystery’ proves frustratingly convoluted, despite the laboriously expositional nature of the script. The obscurantism is not helped by the lack of subtitles, nor the unclear diction of Katherine Manley, as Toby’s patron Zenna Briggs, who funds his increasingly elaborate documentary.
As the investigative filmmaker, baritone Roderick Williams is great, making the most of his rather banal words. He is ably supported by Claron McFadden in her ambiguous role as Iris Marinus. Meanwhile, the two virtual singers are surprisingly engaging – baritone Jonathan McGovern as a grieving parent who has taken refuge in the Sunken Garden; along with pop singer Kate Miller-Heidke, who is also nursing her own guilt in this place between life and death.
Van der Aa has clearly been extraordinarily busy with this project, having not just written the music, but also made the film and directed the live performance of this collaboration between the English National Opera and Barbican Theatre. And what of the eclectic music? It sounds like a film soundtrack rather than an through-composed score. It is rather programmatic, too – the use of loud clubbing electronica, for instance, only used when one of the characters is in a club. Consequently, there is little for conductor André de Ridder to do, save keep the small ENO ensemble in time with the video sequences, which he does.
Overall, this is a bold concept and the 3D-film effects are stunning; remove them, however, and there is little of substance save a seemingly complex novel condensed into a two-hour music drama. Jonathan Lennie