Gerald Barry’s kaleidoscopic Alice’s Adventures pushes musical boundaries at Covent Garden

06/02/2020

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Gerald Barry, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground: Soloists, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Thomas Adès (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 4.2.2020. (JPr)

Alice’s Adventures Under Ground with Jennifer France (Alice)
(c) Clive Barda

Production:

Director and Designer – Antony McDonald
Lighting designer – Fabiana Piccioli
Movement director – Lucy Burge
Associate video designer – Alexander Gunnarsson

Cast (in numerous roles which included):

Alice – Jennifer France
Red Queen / Queen of Hearts – Allison Cook
White Queen / Dormouse – Carole Wilson
The White Rabbit / Mad Hatter – Nicky Spence
March Hare / Tweedledee – Robert Murray
White Knight / Cheshire Cat – Stephen Richardson
Humpty Dumpty / The King of Hearts – Alan Ewing

Conductor Thomas Adès was quoted recently in The Guardian saying ‘I love Barry’s music. His compositions are a Frankenstein mashup of found sounds, whistles, shouts and spoken words, of snatches of tunes, old music hall songs, earworms from symphonies and sonatas, that he then tears to pieces and puts together again like papier-mâché. And then he turns it on its head because it’s so much fun.’ No words of mine could have improved on that description of the composer’s approach to his accompaniment for the drastic conflation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. Whether it is aurally ‘fun’ will depend on whether – or not – you are a modern music enthusiastic.

I have read elsewhere that this is supposedly laugh-out-loud hilarious but at a 9.15pm performance I didn’t hear many around me laughing, nor were there many children – at least where I was sitting – for me to gauge their reactions. I suppose it could work as an introduction to opera for the very young and at least – as someone behind me said – ‘Of course this is not real opera, that’s where they sing in Italian and nobody knows what they are saying’! Perhaps it is the fault of social, rather than print, media these days but there is a tendency for audiences – whether theatre, cinema or TV – to be instructed how they should respond to something new. Another case in point was – the supposedly equally laugh-out-loud – The Personal History of David Copperfield that when I saw it in a packed cinema barely seemed to raise a smile let alone a titter.

Please take an opportunity to see Barry’s take on Lewis Carroll without any great expectations (wrong author sorry). The composer seems to have done what he can to push the boundaries of what he is able to get away with. Alice – who sings like Mozart’s Queen of the Night throughout – begins with the scales and arpeggios of vocal exercises; later the croquet match becomes a piano masterclass with pink music stands as the flamingos; we hear ‘Jabberwocky’ in Russian, French and German; whilst the only repose during a totally madcap 60 minutes is when Humpty Dumpty (a mellifluous Alan Ewing) sings his verses – including ‘My heart went hop, my heart went thump: I filled the kettle at the pump’ – to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy!

Rarely does Barry give anyone more than a few snatched words to sing. When there are huge cakes, bottles or babies these are presented as a barber shop quartet and often if the seven singers are there at the same time, they are often singing different words and music. It is an amazing feat of vocal dexterity from all concerned with an amazing 98 top Cs from Jennifer France’s Alice as a testimony to an impressive technique. She had only one character, but it is all the others – Allison Cook, Carole Wilson, Nicky Spence, Robert Murray, Stephen Richardson and Alan Ewing – who bear the brunt of all the rushing about and quick costume changes for the 52 other named roles.

Nothing I – nor anyone for that manor – can write would give you any real impression of what actually happened onstage. Alice’s Adventures Under Ground is too frenetic and unpredictable for that. Everything you thought you would look out for in Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories –  including, White Rabbit, Mad Hatter, Dormouse, March Hare, Cheshire Cat, Queen of Hearts, Mock Turtle, as well as, Tweedledum and Tweedledee – flash by in an instance.  Anthony McDonald’s production never lets up and it is as though we are sucked into Barry’s kaleidoscopic musical vortex along with Alice. Within the concept of Lewis Carroll, Lorina and Edith Liddle – here dancers, Lukas Hunt, Bianca Hopkins and Eloise Hymas – enacting the stories using a Victorian toy theatre with some miniature figures that come to life; McDonald blends the surreally subversive mayhem of the Marx Brothers, Goons and Monty Python (there is one particular Terry Gilliam-like illustration of some Royals) into one hallucinogenic act.

At times it all reminded me of the recent truly inspired TV comedy, The Goes Wrong Show, which was born out of the Mischief Theatre’s Goes Wrong shows that are currently running in London’s West End. In those everything that can possibly go wrong does, and yet the actors still have a smile on their faces. Not that anything did go wrong with Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, but it seemed like it could all descend into chaos at any moment. All credit to Adès for holding everything together … just about. Barry’s musical idiom must have been alien to them, yet the orchestra provided Adès with solid support and some of the players clearly relished any chance they got for a virtuosic solo.

Jim Pritchard

For more about what is one at the Royal Opera House click here.

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