Alice in Wonderland review – Netia Jones’s ingenious staging can’t disguise dramatic flaws

Barbican, London
Despite a virtuosic multimedia staging and faultless performances, Unsuk Chin’s opera never quite comes to life

When Unsuk Chin’s operatic Alice was first performed, in Munich in 2007, it seemed reasonable to give the work the benefit of the doubt. There was no denying the brilliance of Chin’s instrumental writing, and at least some of its dramatic shortcomings could be blamed on the archness of the premiere production. But now that Alice in Wonderland has finally reached the UK, brought to the Barbican in the concert staging by Netia Jones that was first seen in Los Angeles in February, the production raises the same dramatic problems it did at its premiere.

Many of those problems start with Chin and David Henry Hwang’s libretto, which is extracted from Lewis Carroll’s book and adds extra layers to a text that is already laden with verbal conceits, puns and parodies.

Netia Jones's staging of Alice In Wonderland features vintages illustration by Ralph Steadman.
Netia Jones’s staging of Alice in Wonderland features vintages illustration by Ralph Steadman. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian Photograph: Tristram Kenton/Guardian

They add a sententious prologue and epilogue that suggest Alice’s adventures are some kind of rite of passage, and rewrite and flatten out much of what comes in between, so that the gentle humour and its scary dark side are neutralised.

Much of the flavour of the original – its affection, its very British nostalgia – has been lost in this process. The opera becomes a series of self-contained tableaux, two-dimensional and often too long. Despite its ingenuity, Jones’s staging, which takes Ralph Steadman’s late 60s set of Alice illustrations as its visual starting point, can’t supply what is missing. For all the virtuosity with which she manipulates these images and combines them with the live performers, who move in and around the orchestra (the BBC Symphony) on stage, there’s something flat and distancing about it; the audience is kept very much at arms’ length, and never encouraged in to share the jokes and games. The opera never comes to life in the way one hoped it would.

Musically, it couldn’t be faulted. Conductor Baldur Brönnimann ensured all of the score’s sideways glances, from baroque pastiche to references to Gershwin and Ravel, made their point, and all the singers fearlessly took on Chin’s vocal-writing demands. They were led by Rachele Gilmore’s butter-can’t-melt Alice, easing her way around the coloratura. There were also fine cameos from countertenor Andrew Watts as the bustling White Rabbit, Marie Arnet as a faultlessly smug Cheshire Cat, Jane Henschel as an imposing Queen of Hearts (complete with eight-foot ruff), and Dietrich Henschel as the semi-tragic Mad Hatter. But these roles really are cameos; the picaresque texture is too thin for them to be anything more substantial.

• To be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 11 July.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Tannhäuser review – dramatic momentum, distinguished performance
Theater Freiberg's production of Wagner's complex opera was impressively sung, says George Hall

George Hall

30, Jul, 2014 @5:24 PM

Article image
Der Rosenkavalier review – new Glyndebourne staging lacks emotion

Elegant vocal performances and Robin Ticciati's efficient conducting mark Strauss's comic opera, but Richard Jones's staging doesn't make you laugh or cry

Andrew Clements

19, May, 2014 @10:40 AM

Article image
Nabucco review – kitsch staging mars a strong performance

WNO capture the passions of Verdi's score, but there's too much glitz in Rudolf Frey's production, writes Rian Evans

Rian Evans

01, Jun, 2014 @5:21 PM

Article image
Xerxes review – Hytner’s staging remains fresh and fluid
Alice Coote brings tremendous vocal swagger to this ENO revival of Handel’s comic opera, writes Guy Dammann

Guy Dammann

16, Sep, 2014 @11:40 AM

Article image
Tannhäuser review – a clear staging but the singing disappoints
Wagner’s opera of extremes is directed with striking simplicity, but John Treleaven’s tormented Tannhäuser grates on the ear

Rian Evans

14, Jun, 2016 @10:38 AM

Article image
Oedipe review – spellbinding staging of a 20th-century masterpiece
Substantial performance of Oedipus’s birth-to-death story commutes between past and present, staged at a scale to match Enescu’s opera and its humanity

Andrew Clements

24, May, 2016 @4:21 PM

Article image
La Vida Breve/Gianni Schicchi review – disturbing, ingenious double bill
Bleak tragedy of De Falla’s La Vida Breve brought to sordid life, after which comedy Gianni Schicchi provides welcome relief

Andrew Clements

19, Feb, 2015 @3:18 PM

Article image
Otello review – Kaufmann thrills in a dark, expressionistic staging
In his role debut, Jonas Kaufmann’s arrestingly-sung Otello is a charismatic and troubled outsider in a production that can feel heavy-handed

Tim Ashley

22, Jun, 2017 @11:49 AM

Article image
Orfeo review - achingly moving but hampered by clumsy staging
John Eliot Gardiner remains wonderfully alert to the joys and sorrow of Monterverdi’s masterpiece, and this performance was beautifully sung and played, but was let down by an awkward semi-staging

Tim Ashley

05, Aug, 2015 @11:59 AM

Article image
The Rake’s Progress review – revealing a rare, emotionally tender Stravinsky
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Andrew Davis was graceful and bright, and some fine soloists made this concert-staging memorable and enjoyable

Kate Molleson

13, Aug, 2015 @1:40 PM