Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland
Opera Holland Park
This delightful opera by Will Todd and Maggie Gottlieb premiered at Opera Holland Park a couple of years ago, and returned in repertory with the regular summer season for 2015. A disc containing all the main numbers was issued a few months ago and reviewed here. It was performed on one of the lawns behind the main Holland Park complex using four different sets between which the singers, orchestra and audience migrated under the cover of a repeated (and very catchy) Latin-style linking sequence. Cast and players largely reprise their roles from 2013. The characters and main story line come from Lewis Carroll (now 150 years young) but there is also a bracketing device ,seemingly inspired by the Harry Potter stories, which initially places Alice (Fflur Wyn) not in Victorian Oxford but in Grimthorpe, an unappealing Northern city, from which she is very ready to escape once she has teamed up with a talking White Rabbit (James Cleverton). After initial encounters with a counter-tenor of a Cheshire Cat (Magid El-Bushra) and a singing bottle (Maud Millar) who would give Cunégonde a coloratura run for her money – we are well on our way.
We are introduced in rapid succession to all the familiar characters from the story, most of whom get their own aria in which to establish the leading lines of their characters, and who pop up again in later tableaus. Much of the dialogue is taken wisely from Carroll, and then scattered with the fairy dust of various witty contemporary references (the satire of the current obsessive culture of school tests especially compelling in the hands of Humpty Dumpty and Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee). As we move on through the sets we get to see that there is plenty of ‘Malice in Wonderland’ in the form of the Red Queen (Robert Burt) and her henchmen, and the second half of the opera is given over to Alice’s gathering determination to confront this random and rampant authoritarianism and restore order to Wonderland. A pivotal point here is Alice’s one really sustained aria – ‘I flew high in my dreams’ – which is very much an expansive aspirational Sondheim number reminiscent of his ‘I remember sky’ from Evening Primrose. From there on to the end the forces of malice crumble and Wonderland is rapidly restored before Alice is returned to Grimthorpe, subtly changed.
So why does this all work so well? Partly the answer lies in sticking close to the original and not making changes for change’s sake. Anyone adapting Carroll would do well to remember that in real life he was a mathematician and logician of note. The reasoning may be inverted and the opposite of sensible, but it is still full of a logic of its own that becomes all the more amusing when it is played out in deadly earnest as it is here. Another form of loyalty to Carroll (and Tenniel!) comes in the costumes which are brilliantly detailed in their authenticity and fully imaginative when they have to depart from it. For example, the caterpillar outfit is superbly over the top, and the White Knight’s armour is brilliantly improvised from the most mundane of shiny kitchen equipment. The sets are bright and cheerful and solid with the best of them probably the sharply angled table for the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Good use is made of the natural environment too – with characters emerging suddenly from the undergrowth, and local trees brought into the action too. The music is also contrived to work well out of doors. Much of it is cunning underscoring that does not interfere with the projection of the text to the audience. But there is also a great deal of stylistic variation – plenty of Latin, Calypso and Jazz rhythms and many echoes of familiar composers – for example, the Bernstein of West Side Story. There is plenty of tongue-in-cheek pastiche, always elegantly carried off. The twelve-piece orchestra has a lot to do: it gets us going with a lively scene-setting overture and there are plenty of characterful solos in what follows. It is no easy task for conductor Matthew Waldren to manage these disparate forces in the open air and on the move, but he set lively tempi and managed to keep everyone together without any visible problems.
Among the individual performances, Wyn has to take pride of place for her clear projection of text and tunes and her spirited yet precise characterization of the lead role. Robert Burt generated a storm of synthetic ,bustling outrage as the Red Queen – very much a sister to Miss Trunchbull. Keel Watson made great play of his ‘Wonderland Blues’, probably the most memorable individual musical number in the show; and Victoria Simmonds bossed, fussed and blustered energetically as the Mad Hatter before succumbing to the charms of the fey Duchess played by Maud Millar. The March Hare, White Knight, Dormouse and Humpty Dumpty all received lively portraits. A quartet of ‘Victorians’, looking as though they had escaped from Topsy, Turvy, provided backing and commentary and guidance/coordination to the audience.
What did the audience make of it all? The children seemed thoroughly charmed by the proceedings and there were more than a few adults standing at the back who were smirking their way through the many lines that carried a double meaning to people of different ages, without being double entendres. I was not wholly convinced by the argument that moving around from set to set was needed to prevent the children becoming restless and bored. There seemed little sign of that happening from where I was sitting, and in some ways the chopping and changing militated against concentration and focus in two specific ways. Firstly, it took a while for everyone to settle down and re-connect with the music and lyrics; and secondly, the succession of scene changes prevented the actors from engaging vigorously and directly with members of the audience. The ingredients on offer here are similar to those you find in a really good pantomime at Christmas: the chance for a bit more full-on interaction in panto tradition would have added to the enjoyment of the young audience even further.
Still that is just a cavil. If you have missed this charming opera this time around then do book now for one of the performances at the Linbury Studio Theatre in early November. You won’t regret it.
For more information visit www.operahollandpark.com