Unsuk Chin’s “Alice in Wonderland” delivers a dazzling journey for all ages
Lewis Carroll’s children’s book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is a dream in vibrant, living color.
Never out of print since it first appeared in Britain in 1865, Carroll’s tale of young Alice slipping down the rabbit hole into a surreal world has fascinated children and adults across the globe. It has inspired generations of visual artists, playwrights and film makers.
This summer the innovative Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is presenting composer Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland, an operatic take on Alice and its 1871 sequel, Through the Looking-Glass. With a libretto by playwright David Henry Hwang, Chin has turned Alice’s encounters with the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit and vengeful Queen of Hearts into a lavish piece of musical theater. In its best moments, this Alice is as mesmerizing as a bizarre yet mysteriously believable dream.
Alice had its debut in 2007 in Munich, but Chin reduced its gigantic orchestral forces to a more manageable three dozen musicians for the St. Louis production, which closes on Saturday. Judging from Friday night’s performance in the company’s intimate theater in the Loretto-Hilton Center, the score retains the exotic orchestral color so typical of Chin’s music. Rising young conductor Michael Christie is in the pit, and Opera Theatre’s artistic director, James Robinson, is the stage director. The production team includes Allen Moyer, sets; James Schuette, costumes; Greg Emetaz, video design and Christopher Akerlind, lighting.
Compressing Alice’s far-flung adventures into a two-hour opera (played without intermission) cannot have been easy. But Chin and Hwang devised a tightly paced series of scenes that unfold at a brisk, seamless pace, driven by an orchestra full of the sound of ticking clocks, menacing growls and shimmering, often darkly unsettled breezes.
The large cast, led by soprano Ashley Emerson’s adorably petite but determined Alice, was uniformly terrific. Amid the waves of atmospheric orchestral sound, there were plentiful opportunities for full-blown arias—a heartless disquisition on baby-raising, full of bluesy sass, for the Duchess (mezzo-soprano Jenni Bank); a baroque-style aria studded with silvery, virtuoso flights for the Cheshire Cat (soprano Tracy Dahl), a hip-hop riff for the cocky, strutting Dormouse (tenor Matthew DiBattista).
Countertenor David Trudgen, a tall White Rabbit in Argyle socks and plaid blazer, bustled about impressively, his high-strung nerves nearly as powerful as his ringing top notes. The Queen of Hearts (soprano Julie Makerov) unleashed magnificent rages while her consort (bass Bradley Smoak) found some modicum of dignity in the plush, rolling tones with which he echoed her orders. Bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock brought true pathos to the Mad Hatter’s lament about never-changing time.
Emerson’s Alice, virtually never off stage, was the glue that held the opera together. In smart little lace-up boots and a short blue dress with layered, ruffled skirt, she was the very image of a bright, curious child who was nobody’s fool. Her voice was sweet and powerful, whether denouncing the Queen of Hearts’ silly court or singing a lullaby to the Duchess’ ugly little pig-baby.
At times Chin’s reduced orchestration sounded repetitive, stuck in an ominous mood full of dark timbres and roiling, suspenseful riffs. But her inventive strokes, especially a sultry interlude for solo bass clarinet (Benjamin Cortez) and sinuous dancing caterpillar (Sean Curran, the opera’s choreographer) were dazzling.
The opera’s video designs and sets were equally eye-popping. In projections that filled the rear stage wall, we saw Alice diving into a hula hoop, her blue ruffles engulfing the entire screen as she whirled and plunged down the rabbit hole. The Cheshire Cat’s grinning mouth and glittering eyes appeared, grew larger and larger, and then vanished. Tall cabinets in Allen Moyer’s sets opened to reveal a slatternly cook stirring her pots or shelves stocked with singing children.
Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is unadulterated fantasy, a trip to a world that couldn’t possibly exist. But it is a world that considers our ages-old dreams about time, space and identity—a world, in short, made for opera.
Alice in Wonderland has two more performances at 8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday. opera-stl.org.