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Opera on DVD: Alice in Wonderland

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Unsuk Chin, Alice in Wonderland, S. Matthews, G. Jones, Bayerische Staatsoper, K. Nagano

(released April 29, 2008)
Unitel Classica / Medici Arts 2072418
We have been fairly impressed with the music of Korean composer Unsuk Chin, especially her song cycle Akrostichon-Wortspiel. When both Jens and Alex Ross wrote admiringly of her latest opera, Alice in Wonderland (both with a few reservations), it was clear one had to get to know the work. Happily this DVD, made during the premiere run at the Bavarian State Opera last summer, has just crossed my desk. The music is just as described in reviews of the premiere, a mélange of atonal sounds (often recalling Chin's teacher Ligeti) and more traditional harmonic passages. A vast orchestra, spilling out from the pit to surrounding boxes in the theater according to Jens, interweaves myriad colored threads in often unexpected ways.

Sally Matthews (Alice) and Stefan Schneider (Caterpillar) in Alice in Wonderland, Bavarian State Opera, 2007 (photo by Wilfried Hösl)
The sonic allusions include, among other things, spectralism, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and swing. The caterpillar, who speaks his lines through words that flash around him in a circle, plays an extended, bluesy solo on the bass clarinet. It is every bit as surreal and hallucinatory as Lewis Carroll's stories -- written, let us not forget, as an expression of an older minister's odd attraction to and obsession with an 11-year-old girl.

Even more striking, if possible, is the stylish, outlandish staging directed and designed by Achim Freyer (more pictures and videos here). It is abstract, with characters relating to one another indirectly, from separate parts of the geometrically divided set. The stage is mostly a dark background for the colorful masks worn by some characters and the otherworldly puppets, all created by Nina Weitzner, with influences from schizophrenic artists and other Art Brut styles. Some of the strangest images are seen at the open and close of the opera, where Chin and her librettist, David Henry Hwang, altered Carroll's story.

Sally Matthews in Alice in Wonderland, Bavarian State Opera, 2007 (photo by Wilfried Hösl)
Alice does not come from and exit to 19th-century England: she visits Wonderland by way of the composer's own dreams. Before Alice falls through a hole to get to Wonderland, she is menaced by two men, portrayed by large-headed puppets with phallic noses. At the end of the opera, an invisible man tells Alice to plant seeds in the dead, hard ground. When she does so, flowers sprout up and a bright light fills the stage. Sally Matthews is a piercing, girlish Alice, remarkably singing through the oversized mask for most of the opera. Other fine singing comes from countertenor Andrew Watts (White Rabbit), Piia Komsi (Cheshire Cat), and the redoubtable Gwyneth Jones (Queen of Hearts).

The only misfortune about this DVD is in how the performance was captured on video. Instead of allowing the viewer to see mostly from the perspective of the spectator in the theater, video director Ellen Fellmann has the cameras focus too exclusively in close-up on the puppets and performers. This not only draws too much attention to the fakeness of the materials but also spoils the overall effect of the dream-like staging. Worse, overused camera effects like hand-held zoom and rack focus transitions make for a ham-handed attempt to skew the surreal quality of the production, when that was hardly necessary. After watching it once, I preferred afterward just to listen to the sound.


Brian said...

I couldn't agree more with your comments about the videography of this really wonderful opera. There are relatively few shots of the supporting cast who are all stationed at the foot of the stage which was half the fun. The endless shots of blank masks is excessive and dull. It was a real disappointment compared to the live production.

Anonymous said...

I did not have an opportunity to see this opera, but I would like to alert all who post here about Peter Westergaard's new opera Alice in Wonderland which will be at Symphony Space June 3-4 at 8:00PM.

Hope all interested in new opera and Alice will check it out.