Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
June 18, 2012
In 2007, James Robinson, the current Artistic Director of Opera Theater of Saint Louis, had the good fortune to see the world premiere of Unsuk Chin’s opera Alice in Wonderland while on a visit to Munich. According to his own report, he was mightily impressed and became convinced it was one of the most important operas written in the first decade of this Century. I was there too, and shared his convictions about this daunting, beautiful opera, which had been slated to premiere in Los Amgeles, but was later redirected with then music director Kent Nagano’s departure from L.A. to Munich. Fortunately, Robinson was soon in a position to get Alice to the U.S. and after asking Chin to adapt the opera for markedly smaller forces than those called for in the German premiere, the Saint Louis debut was set.
I was thrilled when I first hear about this, though admittedly before seeing Sunday’s performance, I had grown wary of the potential outcome. The world premiere of the opera had been staged by German artist Achim Freyer and was filled with his trademark visual tricks, masks, and perilously raked stage. It was a perfect fit for Chin and her librettist David Henry Hwang’s take on the story which focuses exclusively on the dream material of Lewis Carroll’s story eschewing Alice's life outside of Wonderland entirely. Freyer’s vision, which reportedly was not well-liked by Chin herself, was as vivid and visually powerful as a dream and looked nothing like you’d expect from a century’s worth of Alice adaptations. Freyer used the story as a springboard to talk about the lost innocence of youth which evaporates not unlike the most fantastic of dreams. In contrast, Robinson and his design team are't plumbing such great depths. Despite protestations to the contrary, Robinson and his collaborators have gone with a show that looks and feels very much like the Victoriana you’d pick out of dozens of films or printed versions of Carroll's story. Furthermore, the questionable marketing of the show focused on the performances as being something that the whole family might enjoy. Which I suppose could be true if you’ve got the kind of 12 year-olds who go to summer camp at IRCAM.
But, I’ll admit I was pleasantly surprised at first to hear and see this production of a musically adventurous and very smart opera. The set is filled with giant cupboards and dressers that are painted gray, but open to reveal any number of more fantastic rooms and interiors for characters to pop out of. All of the closed surfaces are used for elaborate filmed projections that indicate the most difficult events in the opera to stage such as Alice swimming in a pool of her own tears or her dramatic post-prandial size changes. The contrast between Chin’s amusing but very modern, dark score and a visually accessible and familiar staging was a brilliant contrast in the end. Robinson uses moments of pantomime and physical humor in clever ways to bring characters like the caterpillar to life as well. But this is a long show, with a fantastic and episodic plot and while Robinson leads the audience down the rabbit hole he doesn’t know what to do with them once he gets them there in this intermissionless two hours. The second half of the opera nearly unravels with bad decisions suggesting Robinson may have lost the strength of his convictions. The large crowd scenes toward the end of the show including the Knave's trial are far too big for the tiny cramped Loretto-Hilton Center stage. The cast is reduced to waving their hands about for acting and the dreamy flow of the show freezes up. Worse yet, signs of desperation set in and Robinson allows some characters including the dormouse and the Duchess to engage in mawkish pandering by serving up the kind of clichéd hip-hop inspired movements and delivery that produces applause and perfunctory laughter but kills the show by betraying trust in the source material’s ability to do its job without cheap stunts.
Chin’s reduction of the score continues OTSL’s recent string of successes of very listenable reduced versions of larger modern works including Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles and Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer. Michael Christie, the show’s conductor, continues here to build his reputation as one of America’s foremost advocates for contemporary operas. He easily maintains focus through turns in the score that go from sparse and economical to huge walls of black shimmering night. The whimsy is there too including the extended bass clarinet solo which serves as the voice of the caterpillar and Chin’s take of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” for the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. The huge cast is fronted by St. Louis favorite Ashley Emerson as Alice who is nimble and projects a necessary child-like pluck and sense of adventure. She handles both the sung and Sprechstimme passages convincingly. David Trudgen excels in the countertenor parts of the White Rabbit and March Hare. And that vanishing Cheshire Cat is never overlooked onstage as sung here by a winning, feline Tracy Dahl. When these performers are onstage in small groups with one another and the visual expanse of the dreamscape is given room to breath, the show is absolute magic. And that’s a big deal for an opera uninterested in presenting a logical narrative storyline, instead investing itself in the power of the illogical fantasized world of dreams. Chin’s Alice in Wonderland continues in Saint Louis through the end of next week and it’s a solid production worth seeing, especially for your hard-to-please Boulez-obsessed pre-adolescents.