The composer Unsuk Chin was born in South Korea and has lived in Berlin since 1988. In 2007 her first opera Alice in Wonderland was given its premiere at the Bayerische Staatsoper. The latest reincarnation of the opera travelled post-haste from the Disney Hall, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to be heard in the Barbican Hall last night. In order to fit this work originally written for huge forces into something smaller than the Munich opera house, an orchestral reduction has been made by the composer and editor Lloyd Moore, which worked perfectly well within the space of the Barbican. However, such is the nature of Miss Chin’s vocal writing and the significant use of keyboards and percussion that it was still the right thing to amplify the singers.

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When is an opera at a concert hall staged and when is it semi-staged? This production was directed by Netia Jones, who also designed costumes and oversaw the use of animation by her company, Lightmap, which effectively created a living, mobile set throughout the performance. She made extremely effective use of the mid-20th-century drawings of Ralph Steadman as the basis for the mad, mad world into which Alice entered. One also has to admire the total commitment of some wonderful operatic singers who coped with huge false heads, an enormous Elizabethan ruff, straight jackets and lip-synching with an animated cat.

Miss Chin was greatly influenced by the book Annotated Alice by the popular mathematics writer Martin Gardner. According to her, “Gardner …works out the book’s intertextual connotations and even shows how it foreshadows many ideas and discoveries, ranging from quantum reality and parallel universes to virtual reality and to the ‘unconscious.’” This perspective on Lewis Carroll’s 1865 book was turned into a libretto by the American playwright and author of screenplays, David Henry Hwang.

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It is debatable just how much of Carroll’s whimsy, gentle surrealism and that very English idea that this all takes place on one immortal summer afternoon, a daydream under a tree beside Addison’s walk and the Isis, remains. It is conceivable of course that the original book, written at a time when both English and Americans used to cover the legs of furniture out of modesty, suppresses all the seething passions, an era when we locked the hysterical out of sight in mental institutions. Instead, the Alice of Miss Chin’s opera is very much an adolescent Alice, charged with negotiating the potential perils of roaming paedophiles as well as holding her own in the face of pompous, rambling academics. Everything is too bright, totally manic, very brash and in-yer-face. I noticed this proved a little too much for a few audience members – mainly the very young and very old. This is certainly not an opera for those who prefer a sedate string quartet concert in a stately home to riding the rollercoaster at Alton Towers. Alice at one point says, “But I don’t want to spend time with mad people.” Sadly for her, this depiction of her dream is like spending a day at a brash American amusement park on Coney Island, with all the noisy fun of the fair and a bunch of dysfunctional people who shout and scream while constantly invading your personal space.

I think you have to be in the right mood to enjoy this piece. I am happy to report that I was, that I found its driving energy infectious, that I found myself laughing along with most of the musical jokes and all the engaging characterisations. The BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Baldur Brönnimann played absolutely superbly, with special contributions from harpist, Sioned Williams, Elizabeth Burley on celeste and prepared piano and the wonderful Katherine Lacy who had a movement all to herself on bass clarinet as the caterpillar. Miss Chin’s orchestral writing is hugely eclectic, using parody, the broad sweep of a film score, all the fire and driving rhythm of ballet scores by Prokofiev and integrating new music techniques such as bowed cymbals plus exotic instruments including vibraslap, flexatone and mandolin to create specific sonorities. It was a touch of genius to silence all the sound and fury and allow the bass clarinet its own Berio-like Sequenza, a few minutes of intellectual purity in the midst of Bedlam.

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Asked how she set the libretto for the singers, Miss Chin replied, “There’s ‘normal’ singing, but there’s also Sprechgesang, crazy coloratura, rap, speaking, screeching and so on.” In this new production, Alice was sung by the American soprano Rachele Gilmore who was a perfect American Alice, managing the high coloratura with apparent ease and dominating the hyperactive staging with a sort of focused quirkiness. The other roles in this opera are essentially cameos, sparking into life then fading back into the firmament. One such twinkling star is the wonderful German baritone, Dietrich Henschel, who, like Andrew Watts as both the White Rabbit and the March Hare, can be heard on the DVD of the original Munich production. Herr Henschel’s depiction of the Mad Hatter somehow reminded me of Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees, simultaneously frail and compelling, especially when giving evidence in the trial. He also proved that, however challenging the vocal writing is in new music, it is possible to maintain one’s beauty of sound throughout. The tenor, Christopher Lemmings played against type (I couldn’t resist the pun) as both Dormouse and Mouse with convincing narcolepsy.

Stephen Richardson offered a richly booming comic turn as the King of Hearts and the American mezzo Jane Henschel who has sung more than a hundred times at Covent Garden gave us an appropriately stentorian Queen of Hearts in a wide hoop dress and six-foot wide ruff which needed two minions to help her negotiate the stage risers. I have huge admiration on this occasion for Mr Watts who at one point came onto the stage from one side as the March Hare, exited and reappeared from the other as the White Rabbit. He is of course in his element in new music, especially in parts created for him, and did not disappoint. I must also give special mention to the Swedish soprano Marie Arnet who gave us a quite delicious Cheshire cat, clearly a pedigree who behaves like a princess. On the basis of this appearance, I am very much looking forward to hearing her in Richard Ayres’ Peter Pan at WNO and the Royal Opera House this summer. The South African-born mezzo Jenni Bank sang the role of the Duchess in the American premiere of Alice in St Louis. Here she was dressed in a costume which parodied female curves and did seem rather to enjoy thrashing her baby (which of course sneezed then turned into a pig.)

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The role of the Mock Turtle was not sung, but played by the actor and multi-instrumentalist, David Finch who gave us a haunting melody on the harmonica, taken up by the children’s chorus which sang of soup. A further five young singers based in the USA made up this large ensemble cast as playing cards, the Cook and a variety of animals. Special mention should be given to Kihun Yoon, baritone, whose vocal richness held my attention when he portrayed the executioner. Members of the BBC Singers played the chorus with some extras provided by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, often having to carry principals on and off the stage. The Tiffin Boys’ Choir made several convincing contributions as mice and urchins and Duncan Tarboton made his mark at the beginning of the opera as Young Boy.

If I have any criticisms of this opera, one is that the “riotous imaginative anarchy” described by the director so rarely abates, meaning that the one reflective interlude (bass clarinet) offers the only all-too-brief respite. The other is that the opera doesn’t really end, or rather the artificial ending of Alice creating a garden when she returns to the real world and finds devastation, is not sufficiently powerful to over-ride the chaos which has gone before.

4 stars

Miranda Jackson

(Photos : Mark Allan / Barbican)

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