Mock turtles know all the rest

Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland premiered at the BayerischeStaatsoper in 2007 in a production by Achim Freyer.  It’s a curious work.  It cleaves fairly closely to Carroll but the beginning and ending are altered to make it clear this is all a dream.  In between those two short scenes we get all the familiar stuff; Cheshire Cat, Caterpillar, Tea Party, Croquet Lawn, Trial etc.  It’s all staged on a steeply raked stage with a sort of set of “advent calendar” openings.  Lines of light are used to suggest scale changes and the characters (almost) all wear mesh masks and have puppet selves too.  It’s a look that won costume designer Nina Weitzner an award.  Everybody seems to be wearing an aerial wire and there’s a fair bit of flying about.  It looks, on the face of it, visually inventive and psychologically convincing.

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On the face of it!  For we, the viewers of the video recording, are vouchsafed little of Freyer’s vision by video director Ellen Fellman.  Instead we get incessant closeups, often of a body part or a character who is not singing and a collection of really weird angles.  If that wasn’t bad enough she constantly changes the plane of the camera so that the stage seems to be rocking back and forth on various axes.  Throw in out of focus shots, superpositions and split screening for bad measure!  The overall effect reminded me of trying to watch the first Lord of the Rings film from the front row of an iMax cinema.  It’s that nauseating, to me at least.  Fans of manic monkey cam may appreciate it.

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Musically the piece is quite interesting.  It’s certainly eclectic.  It tends to the sort of minimalism that’s characterised by very few notes rather than repeated figures; more Monk-Feldman than Glass.  There’s lots of tuned percussion and some interesting, sometimes bluesy, writing for the winds.  Vocal style varies from spoken dialogue through several flavours of Sprechstimme to full on, rather declamatory, singing.  Gwyneth Jones is the Queen of Hearts!  Alice, in particular, gets to cover a whole gamut of styles.

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And, unsurprisingly, Alice, played by Sally Matthews, is what this piece is all about.  She’s on stage for pretty much all two hours and has a lot to do.  She does it very well.  She really manages to sound like a rather precocious but confused upper class school girl.  There’s some very clever choices of accent and emphasis involved.  Then there’s Gwyneth Jones who is rather splendid as the Queen and a largish cast playing multiple roles.  Of these I’d single out countertenor Andrew Watts, something of a contemporary specialist, for his rather weird March Hare and White Rabbit.  There’s good work to from the chorus and children’s chorus and Staatsoper orchestra seems quite at home in the fairly exotic sound world.  Kent Nagano  conducts.

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Technically this is a really good modern Blu-ray disk with genuine HD picture and excellent DTS-HD sound.  The booklet has a track listing and an essay but there are only a few trailers offered as disk extras.  Subtitle options are English, French, German and Spanish.

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I think I would really have enjoyed seeing this production live but the video direction makes it all but unwatchable to one of my cinematic tastes.

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4 thoughts on “Mock turtles know all the rest

  1. I gave up in frustration and anger after about 40 minutes. I really really wish we had been allowed to see what was happening on stage it seemed like an interesting and inventive production. Kudos to you for lasting the whole way.

    • I’ve had a few tough ones recently. The worst was the CD recording of “Cold Mountain” which I was reviewing for Opera Canada. I find I can get through pretty much anything by listening/watching in half hour or so chunks but it’s not always easy!

      • Oh dear. I have Cold mountain in my “to listen to” pile. I do try to support contemporary opera but it is hit and miss – I suppose opera always has been and the hits from the past the ones that are more likely to to have lasted.

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