by Miranda Jackson
Opera Britannia UK
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.
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.
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 pedaphiles 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.
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