Ireland Gerald Barry’s Alice’s Adventures Under Ground: Irish Chamber Orchestra / André de Ridder (conductor). Filmed (directed by Hugh O’Conor) at the National Opera House, Wexford and streaming (click here) from 5.11 to 5.12.2021. (JPr)
In February 2020 parts of Britain were underwater because of heavy rain and there was something in the news about a contagious disease caused by a virus first identified in China, COVID-19. But it was nothing to worry about, apparently! That month I paid a visit to the Royal Opera House totally unaware of the dark days ahead. I was there to see Gerald Barry’s new Alice’s Adventures Under Ground (a co-production with Irish National Opera) which would prove to be my last visit there until La traviata recently (click here). This is a new film version (directed by Hugh O’Conor) from INO after planned performances were cancelled during lockdown and it was performed at Wexford’s National Opera Theatre last May to previously recorded music and singing. Perhaps I can’t improve on perfection, though more seriously, I am basing what I now write on my musings then – not because of egomania – but because I reacted to it now in much the same way.
The original conductor, none other than Thomas Adès, had been quoted in The Guardian as 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 describe what you hear any better, though whether aurally it is much ‘fun’ depends on your tolerance for modern approaches to classical music
Barry’s own libretto is described as ‘based on texts by Lewis Carroll’ and it is mainly a drastic conflation of Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. Everything you thought you would look out for in the Alice stories – including White Rabbit, Mad Hatter, Dormouse, March Hare, Cheshire Cat, Queen of Hearts, Mock Turtle, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, as well as allusions to flamingos and hedgehogs – are there, though flash by in an instant.
What I hadn’t appreciated first-time was how much Barry was entering into the Brexit debate – that was raging early in 2020 – with this new opera. Much is made of a line from the Mock Turtle’s Song, ‘The further off from England the nearer is to France’; amongst many European languages (ancient and modern) spoken or sung in Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, we hear ‘Jabberwocky’ in French, German and Russian; the croquet match becomes a polyglot piano masterclass with pink music stands as those flamingos; and definitely the only repose during a madcap 50plus minutes is when Humpty Dumpty – a melodious Alan Ewing, totally at odds with everything else around him – sings his verses to the Beethoven ‘Ode to Joy’ theme from his Ninth Symphony, the anthem of the Council of Europe and the European Union!
Whether Barry’s new work is laugh-out-loud hilarious as some would have you believe is a matter of opinion, but I urge you to see this if you haven’t; don’t have any great expectations (wrong author sorry!) and make up your own mind. I would not want to put off anyone from showing this to young children as an introduction to opera. Nevertheless, I am reminded of what I heard when I was in the audience at Covent Garden and 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’!
I still believe Barry has done everything he can to push the boundaries of what he is able to get away with. Though Alice sings like Mozart’s Queen of the Night throughout, Barry rarely gives anyone else more than a few snatched words to speak or sing. When there are huge cakes, bottles or babies these are presented as a barber shop quartet and often if several 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 astonishing 98 top Cs (I believe?) from Claudia Boyle’s Alice as a testimony to an amazing technique (and willingness to put her vocal cords through all of this!). Boyle had only one character (and is throughout in her Victorian underwear and the hooped cage of an underskirt), but the others in the cast bear the brunt of all the rushing around and quick costume changes needed for the other 52 named roles (listed below).
Nothing I – nor anyone for that manner – can write would give you a real idea of what actually happens as Alice’s Adventures Under Ground is much too frenetic and unpredictable for that. Anthony McDonald’s production never lets up and we are sucked in even more than before – thanks to Hugh O’Conor’s close up filming – into Barry’s kaleidoscopic musical vortex (just like Alice at the beginning). It is basically a Victorian toy theatre set with occasional school desks which allude to Carroll as a teacher; whilst we sometimes see dancers (Nathan Cornwell, Stephanie Dufresne and Niamh O’Flannagain) as Carroll, as well as Lorina and Edith Liddle (the historical Alice’s sisters).
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 a single hallucinogenic act. Thanks to their recent new series it more than ever reminded me of the – frequently truly inspired – TV comedy, The Goes Wrong Show (which was born out of the Mischief Theatre’s Goes Wrong shows which are still a staple of London’s West End). In those – as the title suggests – everything that can possibly go wrong does and yet the actors still have smiles 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.
As pre-recorded in Limerick, conductor André de Ridder and the Irish Chamber Orchestra do wonders with Barry’s music – and musical effects – that must have been a brave new world to them. Also, it sounded as if the players clearly relished any opportunity they got for a virtuosic solo. Obviously, Boyle’s fearless performance as a feisty Alice is central to all we see and hear and so it seems wrong to single out any others from the superb ensemble cast. However, I have already mentioned Ewing (the haughty Humpty Dumpty); Hilary Summers was a redoubtable White Queen (as well as fearsome Cook); Gavan Ring had much fun with some of Carroll’s more bizarre characters, notably the Mad Hatter and White Rabbit; and a final mention must go to the several months pregnant Clare Presland catching the eye as the author’s more hard-hearted(!) ones such as The Queen of Hearts and Red Queen.
At the end Alice despatches the queens, Red and White, with an oversized pen (which proves mightier than a sword!) and the last words are left to the White Rabbit, ‘Still she haunts me, phantom-wise, Alice moving under skies. Never seen by waking eyes’ from Carroll’s poem ‘A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky’ about the loss of wonder or innocence. Something I hope never happens to me!
Director and Designer – Antony McDonald
Lighting designer – Fabiana Piccioli
Movement director – Lucy Burge
Cinematographer and Editor – Hugh Chaloner
Alice – Claudia Boyle
Red Queen/The Queen of Hearts/Duchess/Mock Turtle/Passenger 1/Oyster 1 – Clare Presland
White Queen/Dormouse/Tiger Lily/Mock Turtle/Cook/Passenger 2/Oyster 2 – Hilary Summers
White King/White Rabbit/Mad Hatter/Tweedledum/Frog Footman/Fawn/Bottle 1/Cake 2/Baby 1/Passenger 3/Daisy 1 – Gavan Ring
March Hare/ Tweedledee/Fish Footman/Guard/Messenger/Bottle 2/Cake 1/Baby 2/Passenger 4/Daisy 2 – Peter Tantsits
White Knight/Cheshire Cat/Soldier/Bottle 3/Cake 3/Baby 3/Oyster 3/Passenger 5/Daisy 3 – Stephen Richardson
Humpty Dumpty/King of Hearts/Red Knight/Bottle 4/Cake 4/Baby 4/Oyster 4/Passenger 6/Daisy 4 – Alan Ewing
Dancers – Stephanie Dufresne, Niamh O’Flannagain, Nathan Cornwell