Korean composer Unsuk Chin's new opera has provoked the fullest range of reactions – everything from outrage to ecstasy. To many, Lewis Carroll's classic is a Holy Writ, and deviations from its letter as well as its spirit don't pass without comment. With playwright David Henry Hwang, Chin has created her own libretto, based on Carroll, of course, but going way beyond Carroll, even to the point of incorporating elements from Chin's own dreams. The unthreatening absurdity of Carroll's creation has been soaked in an acid bath, and some of Chin's and Hwang's libretto is not just dark but actually savage. References to Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse are only the mildest hints that we are not in Oxford anymore. This opera definitely is not for kids.
Chin, after coming to the West in the mid 1980s, studied with György Ligeti, and Ligeti's influence is all over the music in this opera. (It was Ligeti who introduced Alice in Wonderland to Chin, and I think I remember reading somewhere that Ligeti considered composing his own Alice opera.) "Extreme" is not too extreme a word (!) to describe Chin's music, which elsewhere has been described as "controlled chaos." Sally Matthews has her work cut out for her in the title role, which demands the range and virtuosity of an Yma Sumac.
For Matthews, that's just the beginning, though, because she spends most of the opera wearing a large Alice mask made out of what looks like wire mesh. We can't see her face, so she needs to use her voice and the rest of her body that much more expressively. It's asking a lot. The masks, and also the puppets and costumes were designed by Nina Weitzner, and they are really innovative, although I think they get in the way, dramatically speaking. (What can one say about the penis-nosed old men, for example, who appear at the beginning and at the end of the opera?) The overall production has been designed and directed by Achim Freyer – again, with jaw-dropping imagination and cleverness, but at the expense of connecting with the audience. Freyer moves Weitzner's creations up and down a sharply raked staged with a network of cables; it's a wonder that no one hanged himself in the making of this Alice. The lighting also is miraculous, and appropriately so, because a salient feature Chin's dreams was their vivid color. Visually and musically, this Alice resembles an extended acid trip … or at least what I imagine an acid trip to be!
The role of Alice, who hardly gets a moment's rest in this opera (just as in the book) is performed with standard-setting virtuosity by Matthews, an English soprano who apparently can do just about anything with her voice. My hat goes off to her. As the Queen of Hearts, veteran Gwyneth Jones makes a surprising and delightfully deadpan appearance. Although her voice shows its age, she still has all the dramatic and vocal authority required for her frequent orders of "Off with her head!" The rest of the cast, playing multiple roles, is a strong one. Sometimes it is hard to tell them apart because they all have been made up to look like Lewis Carroll! Countertenor Guy de Mey is a stand-out, though, and so is Dietrich Henschel, particularly as the Mad Hatter. Conductor Kent Nagano, always effective in contemporary scores, doesn't let anyone down here.
The sound is excellent; at higher volumes, it will rattle your living room furnishings. The videography is less fortunate. The cameras always seem to be going somewhere or doing something, down to rapidly zooming in and out of faces as they sing. This reeks either of "look what I can do with my camera" or "I think the viewers must be getting bored, so let me do something to wake them up." There are so many closeups that sometimes we lose the sense of the entire stage. Although the opera is sung in English, I recommend using the subtitles anyway; sometimes there is just too much musical data thrown at us to sort out something as trivial as words, even if they are Carroll's (or Hwang's, or Chin's).
If you're looking for a faithful, charming, or even Disney-esque realization of Carroll's beloved children's book, you'll probably be mightily annoyed by Unsuk Chin's Alice in Wonderland. If, however, you're content to let Carroll's texts and ideas be merely a point of departure for other people's active imaginations, then this opera, even though it is exhausting, might be just the thing.
Copyright © 2008, Raymond Tuttle