Wild, untamable strangeness: Alice's Adventures Under GroundReview
Gerald Barry’s newest opera Alice’s Adventures Under Ground gets its first ever staging in this Royal Opera production designed and directed by Antony McDonald after making its European premiere in concert at The Barbican with the Britten Sinfonia in 2016. Emblematic of Barry’s characteristic raucous and fun style, this production is full to bursting with joyful weirdness and perfectly captures the strange and wonderful essence that is central to the original Lewis Carroll stories.
Clocking in at about 55 minutes, this bit-sized, child-friendly opera is perfect for a family outing. It’s outrageous, laugh-out-loud humour can be enjoyed by all ages. There is no doubt that Barry has created a masterpiece of modern opera. His frenetic, ambitious writing does not feel overly academic or unapproachable; there is a slightly wild and surprising nature to his music which immerses the listener into the world that McDonald has created onstage.
In a nod to Victorian toy theatre, the entire set is built to look like a small stage with its own proscenium within the larger space of the mainstage where most of action takes place, almost giving the impression that we are watching a puppet show. Indeed, much of the costuming includes some clever puppeteering to aid in bringing these colourful characters to life. With its beautiful illustrated backdrops, and exaggerated Victorian costume pieces which harken back to Disney’s 1951 animated feature film and Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations, everything about this production feels just as it should; this is very much the Alice we all grew up with.
Soprano Claudia Boyle - who shares the role with soprano Jennifer France in this double-cast production - captured the spirt of Alice perfectly. She had all of the courage, precociousness, and curiosity required of the young heroine all while expertly navigating Barry’s athletic and stratospheric vocal writing with seeming ease. She is joined by six very talented singers who all take on multiple roles over the course of the opera, bringing to life beloved characters such as the White Rabbit, The Queen of Hearts, and Humpty Dumpty to name a few. Each singer being assigned at least six roles (albeit some of them minor), necessitated a series of impressive quick changes. Nevertheless, each character was noticeably distinct and nuanced – a truly remarkable feat.
The orchestra, led by conductor Thomas Adès, takes on an undeniably prominent role in this opera. Barry’s orchestral writing pulses with a furious energy. Thick texture, and incessant, acrobatic repetition is broken up by the occasional but carefully placed silence when the singers are left on their own to declaim their text in Sprechstimme. These virtual silences in contrast to the chaotic swarm of a richly textured orchestra paired with half shouted singing, creates an electric and maddening narrative.
Part of what really makes this opera work so well is its wild, untamable strangeness. The underground world in which Alice finds herself is much like our own but somehow skewed, with all of the expected characteristics of a traditional Victorian society but viewed through a bizarre filter of fantasia as if in a lucid dream. This production was utterly unabashed in its confrontation of the weird and there is an undeniable joy and a freedom in that.