Thumbs up for 'Alice in Wonderland'

Times Staff Writer

At intermission Wednesday night in the stately National Theater here, Unsuk Chin stood by herself next to a stairwell window pensively smoking a cigarette. Although the second performance of her brilliant new opera, "Alice in Wonderland," was going well in the theater where Wagner and Strauss had triumphs, the 45-year-old South Korean composer clearly looked worried.

The "Alice" premiere, which opened the Bavarian State Opera's monthlong summer festival four nights earlier, had been met by what a critic for Bloomberg News Services described as "storms of boos" from Munich's sober, opinionated audience. Moreover, Chin had let it be known to the German media that she was unhappy with the phantasmagorical production by Achim Freyer, since it ignored nearly all of librettist David Henry Hwang's detailed stage directions, many of them illustrated by her music. A key singer, Finnish soprano Piia Komsi, was in the hospital Wednesday, and a last-minute replacement for the (Cheshire) Cat had to be found and given an emergency rehearsal that morning.

In fact, though, "Alice," which was commissioned by Los Angeles Opera but dumped during a budget crunch, proved a hit Wednesday. When the performance, sung in English, was over, thunderous applause and foot-stomping on the resonant wood floors greeted cast, conductor and composer.

If "Alice" was cursed, the curse has lifted. A wondrous new work has, like Alice from her rabbit hole, emerged. And a great deal of credit goes to Kent Nagano, who not only conducted a radiant performance but also was responsible for the creation and realization of a major new opera.

Long a champion of Chin, Nagano initiated the commission for this, her first opera, and "Alice" was originally programmed as one of two premieres in L.A. for the 2005-06 season, Nagano's last as music director before he took over the State Opera here last September. Accountants in L.A. said the company could not afford to produce two new operas, however, so it stuck with Elliot Goldenthal's "Grendel," and Nagano brought "Alice" to Munich.

I doubt there are many regrets at L.A. Opera, given that "Grendel" proved boffo box office and Goldenthal's score was a Pulitzer Prize finalist this year. But history could easily decide L.A. picked the wrong horse.

Where to begin with Chin's wild new work? Freyer (who will design and direct the upcoming L.A. Opera "Ring" cycle) seems to be the lightning rod for most of the controversy here with his bizarre production. But I'd like to start down in the pit and move up.

Chin has created her own sonic wonderland with the orchestra. She has always shown a fascination with puzzles and strange, intricate, interlocking structures that give her music a kind of M.C. Escher-like eccentricity. In "Alice," she creates a scintillating array of instrumental effects. Percussionists spill out to two side boxes and become part of the show.

Two hours' worth of bright glitter is a lot, but not too much. The musical style is a kaleidoscope of many styles, as Chin alludes to Baroque music, Ravel and Ligeti (with whom she studied), Gershwin and lots more.

All kinds of gongs and chimes, vibraphones, mandolin, harp and harpsichord are among Chin's sparkle machines. Strings might be divided into a dozen or more parts, slipping and sliding between high harmonics while tootling winds skip merrily up and down intermingling scales. For a "soup chorus," the singers bang pots and pans on their heads while they swoon and a harmonica accompanies them. It's a riot.

At the foot of the stage, Freyer places eight singers who play multiple parts, taken by Freyer's crew of actors and dancers. The singers operate mechanical white gloves and from time to time wear preposterous headgear, such as a fish, a phone, a metronome. Only Alice and the Queen of Hearts are onstage.

Hwang has fashioned the opera to open and close with dream sequences, which are the work's weak points. But no matter. Freyer creates his own world and treats the whole work as one big, crazy dream. The stage is raked at a severe angle, and characters in grotesque costumes and masks, as well as puppets, pop out of it and float in space, as if it were one of Freyer's mad, messy canvases come to life.

The enormous Caterpillar has a bass clarinetist embedded in it, and his delightful riffs take off from the opening of "Rhapsody in Blue." Typically for Freyer, who always does the unexpected, the Mad Tea Party is tame, barely staged. The director lets Chin do the bedazzling.

It takes a while to get used to Alice, spectacularly sung by Sally Matthews, since she wears a mask almost throughout the show and thus is without facial expression. But eventually I found even that endearing, as if Freyer had found yet another perverse way to let the singing speak for itself. Gwyneth Jones, now 70, was the Queen of Hearts and, wobble and all, sounded still the great Wagnerian and Straussian soprano she once was. She also remains the great -- and here hilarious -- stage presence she always was.

Chin asks an enormous amount of her singers, and everyone -- including Julia Rempe, the substitute Cat -- was a delight. Freyer made the stage glow. Nagano made orchestra and singers glow. And while there hasn't been much sunlight of late in Bavaria, Chin's "Alice" made Munich glow.

The opera has but one more performance tonight in the festival but is scheduled to return to the company in November. A DVD will soon follow. And possibly, at some point, an L.A. production. Placido Domingo says we shouldn't lose hope.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World