Kent Nagano

Unsuk Chin: Alice in Wonderland [Video]

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The announcement of the plan for Korean composer Unsuk Chin's opera Alice in Wonderland, with libretto by David Henry Hwang and the composer, to be produced by Bayerisches Staatsoper, directed by Achim Freyer, and conducted by Kent Nagano, was a cause for great anticipation; with a combination of stellar talents like that, how could the result be anything less than brilliant? Sadly, the work follows the pattern of so many modern operas based on literary classics: excellent composers, librettists, producers, directors, and conductors collaborating on projects that ultimately fall flat. This production is spectacularly elaborate, but this is not the Alice opera that's going to captivate audiences of children and adults for generations and make the round of opera houses specializing in adventurous new work. This video presentation of the premiere production isn't likely to generate much excitement or create many avid fans for the piece, either.

The libretto basically sticks to the events of the two Alice books, but frames the opera as Alice's dream rather than as a tumble down a rabbit hole into an alternate universe. Perhaps the eccentricities of the opera and the production can be attributed to the creators' decision to treat the entire project as a dream. That could account for the fact that it has far less narrative coherence even than the source material; actions and characterizations are murkily dreamlike and would make no sense at all to an audience lacking a prior knowledge of the story. (In the program notes, Chin does in fact comment that her compositions are frequently derived from her dreams.) The video production, directed by Ellen Fellmann, seems to have the goal of creating a dreamlike atmosphere by eliminating any sense of a coherent sequence of events. The frantically darting camerawork flits from image to image, hardly giving each one a chance to register. The majority of the shots are extreme close-ups, so it's impossible to make sense of the context of how characters are relating, or of the total stage picture, which, in spite of being confusing certainly looks intriguing when we get a glimpse of it. The vast majority of the close-ups are of Alice's face, which isn't especially illuminating because she, and most of the other characters operate behind huge masks, so her expressive range is limited mostly to bobbing her head and waving her arms. The masks also make it difficult to tell who is singing; so many of the characters are animals of ambiguous gender that the voice type doesn't make it any easier to tie its source to a particular character.

Achim Freyer's direction and set design, and the costumes by Nina Weitzner are astonishingly inventive and intricate; this is clearly a production that only a major house with a huge budget could have pulled off. There is no reference to Tennial's classic illustrations, which is a legitimate decision, but the costumes and masks are so unappealing that they practically make you want to avert your eyes. It can't be denied that the production is a genuine spectacle, though; the effects are occasionally magical, and the depictions of Alice's extreme growth and shrinkage are creative and effective.

The opera itself lacks the substance to sustain interest apart from this frenzied production, and its problems lie at its dramatic and musical core. It makes little sense for an opera whose target audience is ostensibly children as well as adults to go on for two hours without an intermission. Anyone coming to the opera with a knowledge of Carroll's work will be astonished at how freely Hwang and Chin mess with its details. In a text as iconic as this, what's the point of changing "tea tray" into "ashtray," as one example of the many inexplicable alterations? What's to be gained from a gratuitous reference to Orwell's Brave New World? (And no, it's not Shakespeare's "brave, new world," but specifically Orwell's.) If the music provided a revelatory entrance into Wonderland, these critiques of the production and the libretto would be quibbles. Chin's score has some lovely moments and she is a fabulous orchestrator, but it is almost relentlessly spiky, and there are many long arid patches when not much of musical consequence happens. Chin demonstrates little sense of dramatic timing, and the piece shows scant evidence of a clearly conceived large-scale operatic architecture. As an example of a miscalculation, she scores what seems like an interminable scene, of the Caterpillar, for solo bass clarinet on-stage. (Stockhausen could pull that off, because he'd give the performer something interesting to do, and it would be part of a larger, ritualistic stage action.) Here, the bass clarinetist, situated in the caterpillar's thorax, just stands and plays meanderingly slow music for seven minutes, while one version of Alice (as the Caterpillar's head) mimes his fingerings, and another version of Alice dispassionately assembles and then dismembers a doll-sized Alice, as the text of the Caterpillar's lines are projected onto the stage. The concept must have seemed edgily creative at some pre-production meeting, but in execution it's theatrically deadly. Chin's music for the most part is overshadowed by the production, and when that can happen with a production as scattered as this one, that doesn't bode well for the opera's durability. The combined factors of the emotional distance from the characters created by the masks, the obscurity of the libretto and the action, and the lack of a sustained, coherent musical narrative keep the opera, and this particular production of it, from being truly engaging. As a document of a noble and intriguing, but unsuccessful experiment, it may be of interest to anyone committed to keeping up with new trends in opera.