Alice in Wonderland

We report from Unsuk Chin's sell-out opera

Alice in Wonderland
Rachele Gilmore as Alice in Unsuk Chin's Alice in Wonderland

There was a longer returns queue for this sell-out performance of Alice in Wonderland than for Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. That’s some indication of the heat generated by director/animator Netia Jones and composer Unsuk Chin.

One felt sorry for any children dragged along: this was most definitely an adult affair, a musically dazzling but portentous exploration of Wonderland’s dark underbelly, which never quite managed to catch comic fire.

Of course, Lewis Carroll’s phantasmagorical journey is very dark: I had a childhood horror of the brutal White Queen (brilliantly played by an imperious Jane Henschel in an eight-foot black ruff, pictured below) and the baby-bashing Duchess (again, a fabulous cameo from mezzo-soprano Jenni Bank, swinging her baby round like a pound of sausages to a Sondheim-esque dance of death). Carroll's parade of grotesques are monstrously indifferent to the poor child who tumbles into their midst: but absence of engagement doesn’t make good theatre. Rachele Gilmore’s sweetly sung Alice seemed as flat and stylised as her two-dimensional dress.

Librettist David Henry Hwang has filleted vivid episodes from the novel, adding his own rather pretentious entry and exit scenes, and some stilted dialogue. Netia Jones’s fresh, deftly witty semi-staging, based on Ralph Steadman’s explosive drawings, served the story to perfection: via a screen Alice can fall down a rabbit hole, grow a mile high, encounter a smoking caterpillar with gyroscope eyes and find herself in a game of flamingo croquet on a lawn made of boys’ green hair. Despite this, and a potent, playfully allusive score, the pace is leaden, each joke outstaying its welcome. Alienation stalks the stage.

From the glassy harmonic glissandi which set up its mystical opening, to the fistfuls of clusters rampaging up and down the piano as the Mad Hatter gives evidence, to the Mock Turtle’s harmonica solo, the Brittenesque treble anthem (beautifully sung by Tiffin Boys Choir) to the sultry Gershwinian bass clarinet solo, voice of the trippy caterpillar, or the Turandot entry of the Queen, Alice teems with musical invention and often thunderous, bass-driven power (unbelievably, this was a scaled-down version by Lloyd Moore, but still featured sampled harpsichord, swannee whistle and flexatone). The BBC Symphony Orchestra under Baldur Brönnimann performed with pungent colour and confidence.

Countertenor Andrew Watts made the best of his manic rabbit, and soprano Marie Arnet luxuriated in the melismatic miaows of her Chesire Cat, but the only character who captured our hearts was baritone Dietrich Henschel’s desperate Mad Hatter. At his tea party the drama snaps into focus with a delightful series of musical riddles, a demented ‘twinkle, twinkle’ dance trio and a moment of touching introspection. Both here, and in the climactic trial, we glimpse Chin the dramatist. It’s a long way from Knussen’s bewitching Where the Wild Things Are, but the prospect of her Alice through the Looking Glass coming to the Royal Opera in 18/19 is intriguing.



Photos: Barbican




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  • Article Type: | Blog |
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