The delight of a doomed gamble: Alice’s Adventures Under Ground at the ROH
Alice’s Adventures Under Ground
Royal Opera House
Stalls N4, £7.50 (staff offer)
6 February 2020
My emotion varied from delighted to very delighted over the 50 minutes of this new production of Gerald Barry’s Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. It’s true that 50 minutes is not very long in which to become bored or disappointed, particularly in the world of opera – but I vividly remember the irritated ennui this piece induced in me the first time I heard it, in concert at the Barbican in 2016. What’s changed?
Loads of things, not least of which is the fabulous staging by Antony McDonald, more on which later. But I’ll start with expectation. In 2016 I was giddily reeling from Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest and expected more of the same from Alice. Despite occupying the same highly idiosyncratic Barry-an sound world, the two operas are very different. Back then I saw those differences as defects, but distance helps. In Alice as in Earnest the source text is chopped and compressed; the absurd of the original is magnified to monstrous proportions. But the comedy of Wilde has, at least today, the familiarity of convention, and Barry’s opera follows suit. Even though Barry’s interpretations seem radical, his Earnest is hilarious because the Wilde is hilarious. His Alice is strange, because Lewis Carroll’s Alice is strange.
As distance from Earnest helps, so does proximity to Carroll. I’m usually terrible at doing opera homework, but almost against my wish I read the original Alices over Christmas and that brings an additional layer of delight in Barry’s choices. It is, I see now, perfectly sensible to respond to the wilfully blank episodic nature of the stories by in the opera cutting out every remaining vestige of conventional storytelling. By the end of Through the Looking Glass Alice is sick to tears of all the animals singing songs at her that she doesn’t like very much, and so it is absolutely appropriate that those songs cannibalise everything else in the libretto, bullying their nonsense to the fore. And I’d forgotten Alice has a whole conversation with Humpty Dumpty about the meaning of ‘The Jabberwocky’, meaning it is not even slightly irritatingly post-modern that it should be sung frantically in Russian, French and German. What wonderful ideas!
It may also have helped having heard Barry’s first opera, The Intelligence Park, back in October (showing the sense in the madness of programming two Barry operas in one season, though I think it may still have been madness – more on which below). I enjoyed The Intelligence Park tremendously but Alice is a whole different ball game of tightly wound complexity, purringly gobbled up in the Rolls Royce sound of the Royal Opera House Orchestra under Thomas Adès. On one listen it feels a source of potentially infinite musical delight, from the perpetually rich fused melding of the male-voice quartet to each of the astonishing Baroque and Classical pastiches, shot through with lurid allusions to other operas but all sounding always like Barry. How many others could achieve such a feat?
I can’t think how I could have been immune to all this back in 2016, but immune I was – so some of the credit for the delight this renewed focus brings must go to McDonald’s production, which is anyway a delight all on its own. No expense, nor thought for the singers’ and production team’s blood pressures, has been spared, and McDonald’s costume designs in particular are flabbergastingly inventive. Each character is not only its own wonder of creativity but immediately recognisable in a way true both to Carroll and to Barry – from the dainty raised skirts of the oysters to the galumphing, sorrowful knights and their spectacular steeds. The set designs are less involved but always nattily deployed, keeping impressive pace with Barry’s abrupt changes and often adding off-beat nuance, such as an unsettling parade of real royals parting before our first encounter with the Queen of Hearts. I’m struck by the contrast to Bob Crowley’s designs for the Royal Ballet’s Alice, which are similarly impressive and inventive but much more straightforward. McDonald’s designs, like Barry’s adaptation, follow the beat of a different drummer.
So I was very happy. I wonder if any of the singers were, and I do regret that Barry must make such unfeeling demands on his cast (he must, though). Tenor Nicky Spence was heroic: he seems to have been born for this opera, flinging out full-throated top Ds while energetically capturing to a T the involved and tonally spot-on gyrating required by movement director Lucy Burge. I hope dearly it was enjoyable as Spence made it look, but I doubt it. Our Alice, Jennifer France, was also pretty superb; she’s a more conventional singer than Barbara Hannigan who created this ridiculous role, but here I prefer the convention. France wins a battle against the odds and her triumph, especially when allowed to let rip in the French Jabberwocky, is the sweeter for it. I, like surely anyone with a heart, adored Alan Ewing’s Humpty Dumpty, and was charmed by Robert Murray’s March Hare and Anglo-Saxon messenger – but all of the remaining cast, Allison Cook, Carole Wilson and Stephen Richardson, were superb. I question the usefulness of the three dancers, feeling a little like a desperate measure to try to distract the audience from the belligerence of the music, but they looked very pretty nonetheless.
My delight was unimpeded; but I did wonder gently throughout what this opera is for. To start off with the Royal Opera’s take on it as a madcap piece for children seemed sound: fun characters, fun singing, fun costumes, all good. ‘This’, I smugly thought to myself, ‘this is why I didn’t enjoy it in 2016.’ But as the opera continues on its very short course I’m not sure the categorisation sticks. Sure it’s zany, and sure children don’t necessarily need conventional storytelling: but the storytelling is so very curtailed, and there’s so very much singing in foreign languages, that I wondered what all the five-year-olds around me were making of it. Because it’s not really a children’s opera, is it, and nor is it an adult’s opera. It’s a Barry opera. This fan is very grateful for all that money and effort spent, though I trouble at its financial prudence. But then, perhaps this is just the kind of doomed gamble the Royal Opera should be making – within reason.
I checked in a second time (Sunday 9 February, Amphitheatre A31, £10) primarily to see the other cast, partly to see if the delight endured a second innings at close proximity and also, if we’re honest, because the thing is so short it didn’t seem like much of a risk. I stand by my assessment of the first cast I saw but have to concede the second is more stylish and better rehearsed. Claudia Boyle puts more interpretative spin on Alice’s crazy notes; while I’m extremely impressed I’m not sure I don’t prefer France’s more mechanical rendition, but that’s a matter of personal taste. The cast as a whole is more even: tenors Sam Furness and Peter Tantsits, each absolutely superb, seek to outdo each other in their domination of the craziness; basses Mark Stone and Joshua Bloom are raucously, gleefully sonorous (though I still hold a candle for Ewing’s Humpty); Clare Presland is reliable as ever and Hilary Summers, true to form, is actually probably the only person who can sing those low notes without resorting completely to speech.
Otherwise the performance affected me in much the same way – though I realised in my review I should have given credit not just to the forbearance of the stage team but also to their incredible slickness. It was fun also to see into the pit from above and the unfussed striving of the chamber orchestra.