Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

A stellar Ariadne auf Naxos at Investec Opera Holland Park

Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is a strange operatic beast. Originally a Molière-Hofmannsthal-Strauss hybrid, the 1916 version presented in Vienna ditched Le bourgeois gentilhomme, which had preceded an operatic telling of the Greek myth of Ariadne and Theseus, and replaced it with a Prologue in which buffa met seria as competing factions prepared to present an entertainment for ‘the richest man in Vienna’. He’s a man who has ordered two entertainments, to follow an epicurean feast, and he wants these dramatic digestifs served simultaneously.

PROM 5: Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande

Stefan Herheim’s production of Debussy’s magnificent 1902 opera for Glyndebourne has not been universally acclaimed. The Royal Albert Hall brought with it, in this semi-staged production, a different set of problems - and even imitated some of the production’s original ones, notably the vast shadow of the organ which somewhat replicates Glyndebourne’s 1920’s Organ Room, and by a huge stretch of the imagination the forest in which so much of the opera’s action is set.

Thought-Provoking Concert in Honor of Bastille Day

Sopranos Elise Brancheau and Shannon Jones, along with pianists Martin Néron and Keith Chambers, presented a thrilling evening of French-themed music in an evening entitled: “Salut à la France,” at the South Oxford Space in Brooklyn this past Saturday, July 14th.

Dido in Deptford: Blackheath Halls Community Opera

Polly Graham’s vision of Dido and Aeneas is earthy, vigorous and gritty. The artistic director of Longborough Festival Opera has overseen a production which brings together professional soloists, students from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and a cast of more than 80 south-east London adults and children for this, the 12th, annual Blackheath Halls Community Opera.

Summer madness and madcap high jinxs from the Jette Parker Young Artists

The operatic extracts which comprised this year’s Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance seemed to be joined by a connecting thread - madness: whether that was the mischievousness of Zerbinetta’s comedy troupe, the insanity of Tom Rakewell, the metaphysical distress of Hamlet, or the mayhem prompted by Isabella’s arrival at Mustafà’s Ottoman palace, the ‘insanity’ was equally compelling.

Mefistofele at Orange’s Chorégies

This is the one where a very personable devil tells God that mankind is so far gone it isn’t worth his time to bother corrupting it further.

Mascagni's Isabeau rides again at Investec Opera Holland Park

There seemed to me to be something distinctly Chaucerian about Martin Lloyd-Evans’ new production of Mascagni’s Isabeau (the first UK production of the opera) for Investec Opera Holland Park.

The 2018 BBC Proms opens in flamboyant fashion

Anniversaries and commemorations will, as usual, feature significantly during the 2018 BBC Proms, with the works of Leonard Bernstein, Claude Debussy and Lili Boulanger all prominently programmed during the season’s myriad orchestral, vocal and chamber concerts.

Banff’s Hell of an Orphée+

Against the Grain Theatre brought its award winning adaptation of Gluck’s opera to the Banff Festival billed as “an electronic baroque burlesque descent into hell.”

A Choral Trilogy at the Aix Festival

What Seven Stones (the amazing accentus / axe 21), and Dido and Aeneas (the splendid Ensemble Pygmalion) and Orfeo & Majnun (the ensemble [too many to count] of eleven local amateur choruses) share, and virtually nothing else, is spectacular use of chorus.

Vintage Audi — Parsifal, Kaufmann, Pape

From the Bayerisches Staatsoper Munich, Wagner Parsifal with a dream cast - René Pape, Jonas Kaufmann and Nina Stemme, Christian Gerhaher and Wolfgang Koch, conducted by Kirill Petrenko, directed by Pierre Audi. The production is vintage Audi - stylized, austere, but solidly thought-through.

Flight Soars High in Des Moines

Jonathan Dove’s innovative opera Flight is being lavished with an absolutely riveting new production at Des Moines Metro Opera’s resoundingly successful 2018 Festival.

Fledermaus Pops the Cork in Iowa

Like a fizzy bottle of champagne, Des Moines Metro Opera uncorked a zesty tasting of Johan Strauss’s vintage Die Fledermaus (The Bat).

A spritely summer revival of Falstaff at the ROH

Robert Carson’s 2012 ROH Falstaff is a bit of a hotchpotch, but delightful nevertheless. The panelled oak, exuding Elizabethan ambience, of the first Act’s gravy-stained country club reeks of the Wodehouse-ian 1930s, but has also has to serve as the final Act’s grubby stable and the Forest of Windsor, while the central Act is firmly situated in the domestic perfection of Alice Ford’s 1950s kitchen.

Down on the Farm with Des Moines’ Copland

Ingenious Des Moines Metro Opera continued its string of site-specific hits with an endearing production of Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land on the grounds of the Maytag Dairy farm.

Des Moines’ Ravishing Rusalka

Let me get right to the point: This is the Rusalka I have been waiting for all my life.

L'Ange de feu (The Fiery Angel)
in Aix

Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel is rarely performed. This new Aix Festival production to be shared with Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki exemplifies why.

Ariane à Naxos (Ariadne auf Naxos) in Aix

Yes, of course British stage director Katie Mitchell served up Richard Strauss’ uber tragic Ariadne on Naxos at a dinner table. Over the past few years Mme. Mitchell has staged quite a few household tragedies at the Aix Festival, mostly at dinner tables, though some on doorsteps.

The Skating Rink: Garsington Opera premiere

Having premiered Roxanna Panufnik’s opera Silver Birch in 2017 as part of its work with local community groups, Garsington Opera’s 2018 season included its first commission for the main opera season. David Sawer's The Skating Rink premiered at Garsington Opera this week; the opera is based on the novel by Chilean writer Roberto Bolano with a libretto by playwright Rory Mullarkey.

Madama Butterfly at the Princeton Festival

The Princeton Festival brings a run of three high-quality opera performances to town each summer, alternating between a modern opera and a traditional warhorse. John Adams’ Nixon in China has been announced for next summer. So this year Princeton got Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, for which the Festival assembled an impressive cast and delivered a polished performance.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Alice in Wonderland (Photo by Wilfried Hoesl, courtesy of Die Bayerische Staatsoper)
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.

Unsuk Chin: Alice in Wonderland
Photo by Wilfried Hoesl, courtesy of Die Bayerische Staatsoper

 

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

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):