Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Eat Me

July 04, 2007

Cast of Alice in Wonderland
Photo: Wilfried Hosl/Bavarian State Opera 2007

What Garden is this?
A garden with no flowers, no life?
My dreams have led me all to dirt?
What garden is this?

--Alice, Finale, Dream II of Alice in Wonderland

The first order of business Wednesday on my visit to Munich and the Bayerische Staatsoper Summer Festival was the second performance of the world premiere of Unsuk Chin’s new opera Alice in Wonderland. Anytime I see something new like this that has many new elements, I feel unsure about being too critical. However, the libretto is in English, which helps, and it is a familiar story so it is more accessible to me than other things. Yet after my first brush with the piece I will say that despite some wonderful performances, many clever musical and theater moments, and just sheer ambition, I left the performance feeling somewhat underwhelmed.

Chin and librettist David Henry Hwang, have set Lewis Carroll’s story rather faithfully. It’s all here – the Cheshire cat, the Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, etc. In fact one of the greatest strengths of the work is its return to some of Carroll’s original emphasis on themes related to identity and the struggle for an individual, like Alice, to figure out not only which way she is going, but also, who she is in a very confusing world. This makes for a somewhat darker and more surreal tale than the Disneyfied version many of us grew up with, but it does give the opera far more heft. Unfortunately, outside of this, the libretto is somewhat hard to hold onto. It is absurdist at best with no real meaningful plot or character development outside of whether or not you interpret Alice’s own experiences as transformative for her. After two hours of this, while you may be intellectually engaged, it’s somewhat hard to feel impassioned about it. Having seen at least two of the operas Hwang has had a hand in writing, I can say that I am not yet convinced he is anywhere near as strong a librettist as a playwright. But practice makes perfect, right?

Sally Matthews as Alice
Photo: Wilfried Hosl/Bavarian State Opera 2007
The opera consists of a single act (that was presented with one “pause”) spread into seven scenes, two interludes, and a brief “dream” introduction and finale. The music is influenced by European modernism and is not especially tuneful. There are no real arias, per se, however there are numerous extended riffs on a variety of themes (a la Schnittke) that are very entertaining. At one point, Alice, played by the soprano Sally Matthews, sings an extended riff on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” with the Mad Hatter. Alice’s meeting with the caterpillar is represented entirely by an extended bass clarinet solo with the unsung lyrics projected onto the stage. But despite all these amusements, I never really felt drawn into the piece musically, though I by no means object to the tradition the work comes from. Chin is no doubt very good. Unfortunately, she maybe a little too good.

The staging, from Achim Freyer, returns to many of his favorite strategies – lots of big masks, puppets, focused lighting and mime. All of the action takes place on a steep 45 degree raked stage with nine openings for the performers to enter and exit. Alice appears in the middle lower opening and stays there throughout the whole show. In fact probably the most interesting thing about the whole performance is Freyer’s almost complete disembodiment of the voices. All of the vocalists except for Matthews and Gwyneth Jones, who appears as the Queen of Hearts, stand in a trough at the foot of the stage as disembodied heads singing their parts while a large troupe of Freyer’s regular mime and puppeteer associates move around the stage in masks or otherwise represent the characters in action. Even Ms. Matthews herself sings the entire performance until the last two minutes or so in an entire “Alice” head mask. While this is interesting to look at, it does create a sense of disembodiment and distance from the work as a whole.

The performances were all admirable from Jones and Matthews to Dietrich Henschel who sang the part of the Mad Hatter. Kent Nagano has quickly become a favorite with the audiences here if the reaction of tonight’s crowd was any indication. Certainly there was a divided opinion, but no one booed and the majority of the audience that hung around was quite enthusiastic for him as well as for Ms. Chin. There is a final performance left on Saturday, and I hope the piece gets more outings. It is definitely worth hearing and seeing.

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