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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

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