A subtle burn: Garden of Vanished Pleasures Image courtesy of Soundstreams.

A subtle burn: Garden of Vanished Pleasures

Jenna Simeonov

Before it’s gone, make sure you delve into the curious world devised by Tim Albery in his world-premiere production for Soundstreams, Garden of Vanished Pleasures.

It’s hard to pinpoint why Garden draws you in, because it’s a sum-of-its-parts sort of work. The story is compelling: real-life filmmaker, artist, and queer-rights activist Derek Jarman lives out his final years as an HIV-positive man, tending to his gardens at Prospect Cottage on England’s southwest seaside. The music, songs composed by Cecilia Livingston and Donna McKevitt, set texts taken from Jarman’s journals. It’s all delivered by an excellent foursome of singers — countertenor Daniel Cabena (Derek Jarman), sopranos Mireille Asselin and Lindsay McIntyre, and mezzo-soprano Rebecca Cuddy — and a chamber trio of Brenna Hardy-Kavanagh on viola, Amahl Arulanandam on cello, and music director Rachael Kerr on piano.

The cast of Garden of Vanished Pleasures, Soundstreams, 2021. Photo by Claire Harvey.

The story is about love and lust and gender and isolation, all packed into the vantage point of a man living a stigmatic life, watching helplessly as his friends die from AIDS. The multi-faceted story is echoed in the musical styles, which are certainly varied, if nebulous. The minimalist, still aesthetic feels like a waiting room; the crowded trio harmonies signal the tension of being at once scared, lonely, horny, sick, and alone with one’s troubling thoughts; the cabaret-style moments nod to Jarman’s life as a queer activist.

Daniel Cabena in Garden of Vanished Pleasures, Soundstreams, 2021. Photo by Claire Harvey.

Cabena is surely a perfect fit to portray Jarman. His countertenor voice is filled with layered meanings, hidden commentary about gender and strangeness and oppressive societal limits. Like a good British drama, Garden of Vanished Pleasures is a subtle burn, with muted colours and Albery’s signature stark aesthetic, but it unquestionably draws you in. Garden gives me many Britten vibes, probably because of the English-seaside setting enhanced by gorgeous video projections by Michelle Tracey. But it’s also the themes of isolation, of being a gay man in a time and place where people hate gay men.

Mireille Asselin in Garden of Vanished Pleasures, Soundstreams, 2021. Photo by Claire Harvey.

Garden of Vanished Pleasures is available to stream through October 10, and you should watch before it’s gone. I’d say this is one of the more mature, well-produced digital items I’ve seen, and I’m not really surprised that it comes out of Soundstreams.

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