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Gerald Barry’s madcap Alice’s Adventures Under Ground at the Royal Opera House.
It seems very pretty,” she said when she had finished it, “but it’s rather hard to understand!” (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate.
Alice on hearing the Jabberwocky – from Alice through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.
How do you introduce a new audience to opera? What will inspire children to love opera for life rather than consign it to room 101? As a musical child, I was never allowed to go to the opera. It wasn’t until I was eighteen and studying at University that my boyfriend and his family dragged me kicking and screaming to London’s other opera house to see Jonathan Miller’s production of Cosi Fan Tutti. I was hooked. Arguably Mozart is a great way to start, but the plot of Cosi fan Tutti probably isn’t the most appealing for a younger generation. Perhaps the answer does lie in works like Gerald Barry’s Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, with an accessible plot (especially if you’ve read the books). An opera that lasts for just under an hour.
In that time, both Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are staged, literally on a stage within a stage. Antony McDonald’s design and direction are both fantastical, with fairy tale sets and costumes straight out of Strewwelpeter. Each character is instantly recognisable from the Alice stories and there’s something particularly endearing about the Red and White Knights on horses, Humpty Dumpty, a forlorn broken egg, the oysters who would really rather not be eaten and the mock turtles performing their soup song.
There were points though when the plot was stretched just a little too far for me. The Jabberwocky was recited partly in Russian, partly in French and partly in German. Sometimes the surtitles kept up, sometimes there was no translation. And, the Jabberwocky is intentionally nonsensical in the first place. I’m not sure it needs extra help…
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe
As a child, I was fascinated by Carroll’s nonce words and would sit trying to work out whether brillig was ‘bright and light’ and slithy ‘slimy and lithe’. Would I have wanted parts of the poem in a language I didn’t understand? Or is that a subtle poke at the normal opera audience in this country who generally expect to hear works sung in the original language used by the librettist…
Gerald Barry’s score often seemed to leave the cast singing scales, arpeggios, on one note or in unison with the orchestra. And, the use of major and minor scales just smacked a little too much of piano practise for me. There was a momentary period of relief when Humpty Dumpty appeared and sang along to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. The cast made an excellent job of tackling the sometimes challenging vocal lines though I found Alice’s coloratura lines disturbing and at times some of the other singers were overwhelmed by a strident orchestra.
It is surreal and shocking for a conventional opera audience. I wish I’d taken a young friend along because that would the acid test for me. The tiny boy sitting near to me (perhaps 3 years old) nodded his head solemnly and politely when I asked him if he’d enjoyed it. His mother told me he’d loved it.
The diverse audience for tonight’s 7 pm performance was striking. There were plenty of kids and plenty of families who were at the opera house for the first time. I must have given directions to the ladies loos at least three times before the show started. That’s fabulous and to be applauded. The production was visually stunning and the cast admirable in their characterisation and vocal skills. But I’m still hesitating – I’m unconvinced this is the best way to introduce opera to a wider audience. Apart from the challenging music, the opera focusses noticeably on the macabre side of Carroll’s work and offers something of a disturbing social commentary. I don’t have kids though.
As the Royal Opera House are running two performances on each day that Alice is shown, all roles have been double cast. The line-up I caught included Claudia Boyle as Alice – an accomplished performance with excellent characterisation. The rest of the singing cast had multiple roles – Clare Preseland for example as the Red Queen, Queen of Hearts, The Duchess, The Mock Turtle, Passenger 1 and Oyster 1. For me, the stand-out moment was Joshua Bloom’s Humpty Dumpty which had a real poignancy. And I loved the duelling Red Knight (Joshua Bloom again) and White Knight (played by Mark Stone).
While I’ve often felt that some of Mozart’s operas ( Magic Flute being the most obvious example) verge on the surreal, at least some of them are works I’d feel confident taking a reluctant child. With Alice, I’d need to be feeling very brave – this production did leave me wondering who the intended audience was.
Alice’s Adventures Under Ground opened on 4 February 2020, with subsequent performances on 6 February 2020 at 7 pm and 9.15 pm, Saturday 8 February 2020 at 11.30 am and 1.45 am and Sunday 9 February 2020 at 12 noon and 2.15 pm. Decent tickets are available starting at £3
Royal Opera House
Tickets £3 – £60 Royal Opera House Box Office
www.roh.org.uk +44 (0)20 7304 4000
Looking for somewhere to grab a quick drink or something to eat before the show? Try our new favourite Japanese bar, Moto – just around the corner