Sunken Garden is a collaboration between Cloud Atlas writer David Mitchell and the composer Michael Van der Aa. Given that the major film of Mitchell's most celebrated novel is currently on general release one might be forgiven for finding a wealth of cinematic reference in the production. Yet the associated digital production design uses the material and method of contemporary cinema in a way that is becoming familiar at ENO. For this experimental, boundary-testing approach the company deserves such work to be seen and heard. Certainly the reported attendance of not only the Wachowski brothers (who co-directed Cloud Atlas) but also some of Hollywood's most familiar stars would confirm its cinematic appeal.
The plot concerns a video installation artist, Toby, who chances across a missing-person trail in the course of his work. He is led to a door in a flyover construction (conflagrating ideas familiar from Being John Malkovich) which brings him to the eponymous Sunken Garden, where he finds the missing individuals, Simon and Amber, trapped as if in digitised stasis. Confrontations ensue, with the couple locked in the Garden finally released at some cost to Toby.
Though the use of video extracts, here projected directly onto the set, is not new in 21st century opera productions, the use of 3D to construct the Garden on stage is a genuinely novelty. Unlike the (reasonable) charge brought against much commercial 3D cinema - that the story and its rendition were being staged for the benefit of the effects - the 3D here gives further articulation to the situation and idea that Mitchell is trying to communicate.
Simon and Amber are not trapped on the other side of a partition. Clearly they are meant to exist, as Toby's initial attempt at interaction demonstrates, albeit it in a different metaphysical construct. The 3D allows this to happen on the stage, with the exotic environment (the Garden was filmed on location at the Eden Project) perceived to be coming out over the orchestra pit.
This is not to say that the fourth wall is broken. Though the production cannot resist indulging a little of the entertaining gimmickry familiar from cinema - splashing water hurtling into the auditorium, essentially for its own sake - the possibilities for interaction remain on the stage. A causal link between the film and the live action - i.e. assisting in suspension of disbelief - is helped as the characters reel sheer scrims of material across the stage as the same unspools in the projected film.
The cinema references are fascinating. In addition to the tragi-comic possibilities of exisiting inside John Malkovich's body one also can't help but recall the visual-texture manipulation of Predator. In John McTiernan's 1987 action thriller, a malevolent alien moves across a jungle backdrop, concealed by a digitised cloak of invisibility but shown on screen, cleverly, by the distended texture of the picture - like a mouse running under a flat sheet. This is directly analogous (if not metaphysically identical) to the technique in Sunken Garden, as the sense of action within the diegesis is clear but the fourth wall is not broached.
A cinematic reference that is intended is that of the moral turbulence of Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris, as Michael Van der Aa chooses to incorporate the same extract of Bach as Tarkovsky in his 1973 film. Both film and opera present alternative realities, requiring the protagonist to decide to which reality they want to adhere.
Additionally, and certainly by coincidence, the data-moshed appearance of the production's projections is a s mysterious and even threatening as the new teaser trailer for Man Of Steel, in which General Zod appears - apparently from an alien dimension - to threaten Earth. Ironically, we recall that in the original film Superman 2, Zod was sentenced to be trapped inside a mirror, putting him behind the 2D plane of a sheet of glass, something that this production's immaculately rendered 3D projections successfully circumnavigate.