I wondered whether one needs to know Derek Jarman, as I watched Garden of Vanished Pleasures for the first time. It’s the new Soundtreams Online Broadcast through Crow’s Theatre that is available from now until October 10th. I wondered whether it’s universal, something you can appreciate regardless of whether you know anything about Jarman and his life.
You may wonder “who is Derek Jarman”. Soundstreams offers some answers on this page, as preparation for their film-concert. I offered my own 2 cents worth a few days ago, admittedly wishing I knew more about the man. His entry on IMDB gives you some clues, a remarkable list of films and music videos. You can see some of his collaborators.
Garden of Vanished Pleasures is an apt title for a song cycle comprised largely of Jarman’s poetry, a gay activist film-maker who died of AIDS related causes in 1993.
With music composed by Cecilia Livingston and Donna McKevitt, it is mostly a gentle approach to the subject although sometimes the profanity comes bursting through, the anger of the Gay Plague. While I believe this work could have been produced at any time, Soundstreams come at us knowing we’re especially sensitized to outbreak imagery and the contemplation of mortality. For the most part we’re spared suggestions of mass illness or death as Jarman’s vision is largely one of the immanent beauty of his garden sanctuary staring at his own mortality and the loss of his friends.
While everyone will process the work differently I’m comfortable recommending the work to you. It’s not opera but rather a series of songs, meditations and ruminations rather than anything requiring action. If we were to imagine the continuum between realism and poetry, we’re mostly in the world of the symbol, a place that welcomes ambiguity and complicates the process of signification. There are several layers to Jarman so it’s no wonder that we encounter them in Garden of Vanished Pleasures.
No the visuals won’t be mistaken for the richness one finds in Jarman’s films, but this is a song cycle, not a feature film. We’re in a realm where meaning is created in the mind of the listener, rather than in a perfect representation of reality on the screen.
There’s an interesting combination of sung performance, projected images and CGI, requiring a fairly sizable team of collaborators. Tim Albery’s name may be familiar to you as the director of some of the most impressive shows ever seen at the Canadian Opera Company, such as War and Peace, or Götterdämmerung, while his production of Aida was one of the last schedule operas to be cancelled last season due to the pandemic. Unlike the masses required for the three big operas I mention, Albery has only four singers and a few musicians, often alone on the Crow’s Theatre stage where they filmed.
The ensemble of musicians playing sometimes alone, sometimes with singers, included Rachael Kerr, music director and piano, Brenna Hardy-Kavanagh, viola and Amahl Arulanandam, cello.
The singers, sometimes as soloists, sometimes in groups, were sopranos Mireille Asselin and Lindsay McIntyre, mezzo-soprano Rebecca Cuddy, and countertenor Daniel Cabena.
Garden of Vanished Pleasures will be available until October 10th. It’s quite a stimulating creation, well worth your time.