20 Aug 2007
Unsuk Chin’s “Alice in Wonderland”
“Who in the world am I?” proclaimed the posters all over Munich, reducing Lewis Carroll’s famous conundrum to a sound-bite.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.
On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.
Here is one of the next new great conductors. That’s a bold statement, but even the L.A. Times agrees: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s appointment “is the biggest news in the conducting world.” But Ms. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will be getting a lot of weight on her shoulders.
Manitoba Opera chose to open its 44th season by going for the belly laughs — literally — as it notably presented its inaugural production of Verdi’s Falstaff.
Macabre and moonstruck, Schubert as Goth, with Stuart Jackson, Marcus Farnsworth and James Baillieu at the Wigmore Hall. An exceptionally well-planned programme devised with erudition and wit, executed to equally high standards.
On November 20, 2016, Arizona Opera completed its run of Antonín Dvořák’s fairy Tale opera, Rusalka. Loosely based on Hand Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Joshua Borths staged it with common objects such as dining room chairs that could be found in the home of a child watching the story unfold.
Consistently overshadowed by the neighboring Bayreuth, the far less stuffy Oper Leipzig (Wagner’s birthplace) programmed after forty years their first complete Ring Cycle.
You didn’t have to know the Bugs Bunny oeuvre to appreciate Opera San Jose’s enchanting Il barbiere di Sivigila, but it sure enhanced your experience if you did.
If there was ever any doubt that Puccini’s Manon is on a road to nowhere, then the closing image of Jonathan Kent’s 2014 production of Manon Lescaut (revived here for the first time, by Paul Higgins) leaves no uncertainty.
Many opera singers are careful to maintain an air of political neutrality. Not so mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who is outspoken about causes she holds dear. Her latest project, a very personal response to the 2015 terror attacks in Paris, puts her audience through the emotional wringer, but also showers them with musical rewards.
I wonder if Karl Amadeus Hartmann saw something of himself in the young Simplicius Simplicissimus, the eponymous protagonist of his three-scene chamber opera of 1936. Simplicius is in a sort of ‘Holy Fool’ who manages to survive the violence and civil strife of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), largely through dumb chance, and whose truthful pronouncements fall upon the ears of the deluded and oppressive.
For its second opera of the 2016-17 season Lyric Opera of Chicago has staged Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in a production seen at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the Grand Théâtre de Genève.
Akhnaten is the third in composer Philip Glass’s trilogy of operas about people who have made important contributions to society: Albert Einstein in science, Mahatma Gandhi in politics, and Akhnaten in religion. Glass’s three operas are: Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten.
Shakespeare re-imagined for the very Late Baroque, with Bampton Classical Opera at St John's Smith Square. "Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare....the God of Our Idolatory". So wrote David Garrick in his Ode to Shakespeare (1759) through which the actor and showman marketed Shakespeare to new audiences, fanning the flames of "Bardolatory". All Europe was soon caught up in the frenzy.
“Who in the world am I?” proclaimed the posters all over Munich, reducing Lewis Carroll’s famous conundrum to a sound-bite.
Korean composer Unsuk Chin — the latest to defy the Queen of Heart’s forbidding “Off with their heads!” “Sentence first, verdict afterwards!” — unveiled the world premiere of her new “Alice In Wonderland” opera as the opening production of the Bavarian State Opera’s Festival 2007 on June 30th.
Chin’s work was originally to be premiered by the Los Angeles Opera under Kent Nagano’s direction, but the production was not realized. So when he was appointed as the new music director in Munich, Nagano had the rare courage to risk opening the first festival of his tenure with the world premiere of this unusual new work rather than a new production of an old, tried-and-true repertoire piece. Nagano even upped the ante by bringing in other local institutions, like the gigantic new Pinakothek der Moderne museum, to commission and display new Alice-based art works. To see such high-level chance-taking on the part of a conductor and a major opera house, the massive investment of artistic and financial resources and reputations in a new work, created an anticipation nothing short of phenomenal. A frenzy of speculation and a palpable excitement ran throughout the world’s music aficionados. Unsuk Chin had already made a stir, particularly when she won the richest award for music composition, the $200,000 Grawemeyer Award, for her Violin Concerto, inducting her into the distinguished circle of other winners of this award, such as Witold Lutoslawski and her teacher György Ligeti. Given such a pedigree, hopes were running high that at long last we might perhaps have a definitive operatic “Alice.” These expectations turned the June 30th premiere into a major red-carpet event, drawing the attention of the glittering elite of Munich and Germany, as well as of curious opera fans from all over the world.
Alice, the White Rabbit, Mad-Hatter, Queen of Hearts et al. have been traipsed onto the stage almost as soon as they were created. And the torrent of adaptations of the classic Victorian “children’s” books by Lewis Carroll, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and its sequel “Through the Looking Glass, And What Alice Found There” has only increased since — in every conceivable media. Perhaps the most vibrant examples of the peculiarly British genre of Witty/Wise Nonsense, this ripely inventive, playfully multi-leveled, low-hanging public-domain fruit has tempted many artists (and corporations) to bite into for inspiration. Sadly, remarkably few have done so without falling down the rabbit hole themselves. Transforming what works so magically well on the page is difficult.
Sitting in eager anticipation in the electric atmosphere of the Munich’s magnificent National Theatre, one could see this would be no small offering: the elaborate, huge battery of percussion instruments alone required the players to spill out of the orchestra pit and into the boxes on both sides of the stage. What was presented, however, was problematic and very dark indeed. There seemed to be three different performances happening at the same time, all of them at best tangential to the source material.
First, there was the expressionist/minimalist production by Achim Freyer, which was inventive but spectacularly miscalculated. Alice’s dreaming is nothing if not lucid. Certainly not nighttime-dungeon-dark with murky symbolism. Set on a totally black plane tilted so nearly perpendicularly, all the dancer-performers had to be suspended by wire or enter or leave by one of the nine round holes in it. When there were many active at a time, the stage began to resemble a battalion of paratroopers. Below at the front of the stage, also black, was a wide low barrier, behind which all of the singers were installed statically for the duration, with only their heads visible. Regardless of roles, these singers’ heads were similarly made up to look like cadaverous multiple Lewis Carrolls. In front of each were placed a pair of white hands and forearms, which were gesticulating from time to time for no apparent purpose. All of this, like the prominent death-head with insect wings suspended over the stage for most of the show, would have better represented world of Edward Gorey than of Lewis Carroll. Although Freyer’s production was amazingly complex, marshalling huge forces and with several coups de théatre, at best they were illustrative or momentarily surprising, but more often irrelevant and worse — drawing attention to itself at the expense of the singers and the ideas of the story. Alice herself was a rag-doll with a tutu, and who often turned around to moon the audience, giving off more than a whiff of pederasty — perhaps a reference to the controversial photographs of children made by Lewis Carroll (aka Charles Dodgson) and only discovered after his death?
Then there’s the libretto, jointly credited to David Henry Hwang and the composer. Hwang is best known for “M. Butterfly,” but he has also provided librettos for Philip Glass (1,000 Airplanes, The Voyage, The Sound of a Voice), Bright Sheng (Silver River), Elton John (Aida), and Osvaldo Golijov (Ainadamar). Although the “Alice” libretto is drawn in large part directly from the book and strictly according to the composer’s wishes, the additions are often unproductively obscuring. Unless you know the book well beforehand, it is unlikely you will be able to follow the story. And compounding this attitude, Chin had insisted on beginning and ending the libretto not with the original, but with newly imagined “dreams.” The opening “dream” is simply awful: An unnamed boy carrying a mummified cat while portentously intoning “This is my fate!” Lewis Carroll always had a light tread, with layers of sly and playful symbolism, never with a dull thud like this. The composer claimed the purpose in inventing this opening scene was to avoid the Victorian original. However, in doing so, she has actually pushed her work closer to a surrealist version of that hoariest of Victorian artforms: the pompous oratorio.
But the major event was the music. Composer Unsuk Chin is a significant talent, with a sure command of color, instruments, craft and technique. Yet in terms of style, form and drama she is still developing her skills. Although the music is wisely varied, full and often complex, paradoxically it feels as if many details are missing, happenstance, or that the wrong ones have been chosen, making it heavy rather than enlivening or charming. The music is expressionist when it desperately needs to be antic. There is a strangely distracted and hermetic air to this score, which emphasizes an inordinate number of near-quotations of other works. I found myself repeatedly distracted trying to identify the allusions as they whizzed by. This kind of compositional kleptomania would be less of a problem had not the works alluded to been uniformly stronger than the one at hand. Or if they had been at least apt. One principal source of allusions is Ravel’s infinitely more witty and magical “L’Enfant et les Sortilèges.” An almost direct quotation of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” had an inserted trio section derived from Ravel’s Piano Concert in G, complete with slapstick. The Duchess’ “Speak roughly to your little boy, and beat him when he sneezes: He only does it to annoy, Because he knows it teases” was underlined by a timpani tattoo as in the opening of Salome’s dance. What does this have to do with dropping veils? Such musical jokes as there are — for example the Cheshire cat’s disembodied smile as cat-like up-and-down glissandi not pinned down to specific pitches — frankly don’t translate well for the audience. Not to mention the distracting memories of Ravel and Rossini.
About the performers, however, there were no reservations whatsoever. The brave singers were heroic and uniformly magnificent, doing their dramatic best even when, as was often the case, their parts rarely flattered their voices or made the text manageable. Consonants following closed vowels set on high notes sometimes tested singers’ ability to keep from choking, let alone enunciate and project. Frequent full-voice sprechstimme and sequences of long glissandi on syllables were wielded like gashes in the tonal fabric, clear, effective, well-honed, but ultimately tiring when used so much.
The part of Alice was originally conceived for the phenomenally talented helium-based Broadway life-form known as Kristen Chenoweth. But for this premiere, Sally Matthews negotiated Alice’s very varied demands with ease, naive ditties, coloratura hailstorms, sprechstimme and swoops, everything. Septuagenarian Gwyneth Jones has a vibrato as wide as the moon’s orbit these days, yet she held the stage’s focus ferociously with her Brunhilde/Lulu turn as the Queen of Hearts. Piia Komsi triumphed in the punishingly extreme role of the Cat. Another standout was Andrew Watts, who negotiated his largely falsetto White Rabbit convincingly. Ditto Mad Hatter Dietrich Henschel. Guy de Mey was suitably mousey as the Mouse, and Cynthia Jackson a commanding Duchess. Steven Humes’ smooth bass stood him in good stead as the King of Hearts.
The most successful scene, however, was without singer or orchestra: the “Interlude 1” entirely for solo bass clarinet (Stefan Schneider), as the audience was invited simply to read projected on the stage the words of the hookah-smoking, mushroom-engaged caterpillar advocating the virtues of transformation and change.
Viewing Alice as a series of strange surrealist dreams, however, largely eviscerates the playful depths and hidden games that make the book the wonder it is. I would suggest the composer take the caterpillar’s advice and consider radical metamorphosis for this music: Drop Alice and map this score onto Strindberg’s “Dream Play,” which is not just closer to her ideas and temperament, but, startlingly, it contains nearly identical scenes as she has interpreted them.
Unsuk Chin’s finely-detailed, wide-ranging score received a committed, precise, fluent and beautifully played performance by Kent Nagano and the Bavarian State Orchestra. Ditto the State Opera’s children’s and adult’s choruses. Nagano commanded the huge forces with graceful authority, and I cannot imagine it being better done. In the end, the audience divided violently. The lusty, loudly sustained boo’s seemed to overwhelm the less numerous but also sustained applause. At the end, the parquet emptied quickly, while scattered energetic applause continued, mostly from the upper balconies, forcing the bows to continue to a nearly empty house.
The late György Ligeti is the one who suggested Chin consider “Alice” for an opera. He had wanted to compose it himself, but correctly guessed he had not time enough left to do so. One can only dream what that truly extraordinary composer, capable of the full, deft range of wit and humor, from wink, nudge, titter to belly laugh, would have done with Alice.
In my decades of Alice encounters, only one version has been a completely unalloyed success: a “poor theater” dramatization created by André Gregrory. Small cast, almost no props or scenery. But what imagination! And consider the artists who’ve tried to visualize Alice, including in the exhibitions surrounding this production — has anyone succeeded in displacing David Tenniel’s 142 year-old vision of this work?
Kent Nagano and everyone at the Bavarian State Opera are to be praised for taking such a big chance on new work. One fervently hopes this kind of risk-taking will continue. We need new work and the excitement it brings even when it does not live up to expectations. But perhaps the best moral comes from the book itself: “‘Perhaps it hasn’t one,’ Alice ventured to remark. ‘Tut, tut, child,’ said the Duchess, ‘everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it....Take care of sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves.’”
© 2007 Raphael Mostel