(Publisher’s note: I’m proud to welcome Lauri D. Goldenhersh to the pages of All is Yar. By training and profession, she is a mezzo-soprano, active throughout Los Angeles and a veteran of many local ensembles, including the Los Angeles Master Chorale. She is also the publisher of Lauri’s List (laurislist.net), a website devoted to helping Southern California singers to network, find gigs, and get access to a whole host of services and information. She frequently writes opera and concert reviews on her blog, Singerpreneur, a slightly more opinionated cousin to Lauri’s List. I am very happy to have her sharing her thoughts and observations here.)
Alice in Wonderland, the opera by composer Unsuk Chin with libretto by David Henry Hwang, recently came to Walt Disney Concert Hall care of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in a collaboration with Los Angeles Opera and featuring a plethora of guests and soloists. It was nice to see the two next-door neighbors work together to offer a unique adaptation, envisioned and directed here by Netia Jones, that tested the mettle of everyone in the room.
The story is probably familiar. To be clear, however, this is not an interpretation of any film (including that wildly successful version by the concert hall’s name-sake), but drew from the original book. Timing was perfect: Lewis Carroll’s classic gets a 150th anniversary this year, and this much-anticipated West Coast premiere, while showing a few rough edges, did not disappoint.
This is a rigorously faithful interpretation built by two creators with a keen understanding of the author’s connection to his own words and the joy he took in moving them around.
- The program notes make much of Mr. Carroll and Ms. Chin’s shared love of puzzles and acrostics. Hearing the opera, it makes sense: her approach to the book seems organic, as if she was born to the project.
- Mr. Hwang’s treatment of the text is almost entirely true to the original, with a few moments of upgrade to more modern times which include references to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, credit cards, and the augmentation of the Dormouse’s “M” list to embrace Mao, Marx and Mickey Mouse (not necessarily in that order). Just as in the book, the scene-by-scene structure doesn’t always flow smoothly from one section to another, but the pastiche of “greatest hits” from Alice’s adventures still works.
In the open spaces of Disney Hall and with the set built under, around, and through the orchestra, it seems as if the show actually begins the moment the orchestra musicians start to arrive. The stage floor was bedecked in riotous black and white, and several pedestals were set among the players, where cast members would later stand to act their parts at various points in the action.
As we settled into our seats and fidgeted with programs, a young man in a red suit braced a title card in the rear corner of the stage. This would become the focal point for various video projections throughout the show. The title card began to vibrate before us, slowly dropping letters as Alice’s eye blinked at us through a video peephole. An air of intense expectation ruled, as performers and audience looked around to see what would happen next, and we heard a glimpse of the music’s wildly florid stirrings from hectic last-minute line run-throughs, particularly in the woodwind section. They’d be in for a workout.
After the tuning, a final orchestra member came careening in just as the conductor arrived, tucking in his shirt as he ran. Laughing at the parallel to the tardy White Rabbit, we got the joke and sat back for a great time. Then in a complete change of mood, the eerie opening was ominous as a child now attempted to hold up the screen, and the Tweedles (Dum and Dee) were a little scary in their masks like aged newsies.
Alice’s first entrance showed soprano Rachele Gilmore’s voice to be more mature than her appearance — she sang with a full sound that resonates easily; however, she was dressed in classic Alice garb (a blue dress with a white apron, and a severely bobbed blond wig), and her posture and movement were right for the character, the openness and honesty of her portrayal express the child quite believably. Further, Ms. Gilmore’s interpretation and diction maintain the storytelling intimacy of the opera’s art song roots.
Countertenor Andrew Watts, who plays the White Rabbit / Badger / March Hare, had a clean, flexible sound and strong sense of character: his Rabbit was officious, nervous, and all a-twitter, using an appropriate sense of camp without stepping into stereotype of this iconic role. The lyric “glove aria” was especially enthralling.
As the Mouse / Dormouse, tenor Christopher Lemmings was very funny and sang with a clear, expressive sound that was free enough to accommodate a wiry physical style that is part Buster Keaton, part Pee-Wee Hermann, and all imp.
The Cheshire Cat, played with scene-stealing verve by Swedish soprano Marie Arnet, is all swoops and swoons. Ms. Arnet’s consistently smooth vibrato and startling, seemingly effortless accuracy made her the purring, indubitably feline ball of mischief we can’t help but love. In the hands of the wrong singer, the role could be a mess of inarticulate nothingness.
As the Duchess (a.k.a. the Worst Mother in the World), Jenni Bank reprised her role from the 2012 American Premiere in St. Louis in dark, powerful tones. Her character was raucous and stupid but immensely funny, with all the gravitas and self-importance of the grand dame.
Dietrich Henschel’s fathoms-deep sound somehow made the Mad Hatter more human, more pitiable, and the perfect foil for Mr. Watts’ brightly-timbred March Hare. Mr. Henschel’s shining moment is his aria pleading with Time for forgiveness. His big voice easily sailed over the orchestra, in a surprisingly heartbreaking revelation of what it’s like to be inside the madness. (His bio indicates that he’s slated to record Schumann’s Eichendorff songs — yum.)
In a production such as this, with more than twenty named onstage performers playing 29+ roles, a “scorecard” is absolutely essential, and unfortunately, even with the cast sheet provided in the program it was often difficult to tell which character was singing at any given moment. So let’s focus on spotlighting the standout performers of the many smaller roles:
- David Finch was lithe and comical as Bill, dancing around in a bright yellow suit as he tries to get Alice out of the house she has outgrown. But he was remarkable as the Mock Turtle, in one of the most affecting scenes in the opera. Giving the poor turtle a harmonica is pure genius: the soulful wail sets the mood with just one note, and the aria takes it from there.
- The lower voices in the cast were superb, and Ms. Chin gave them many moments in which to shine. Stephen Richardson’s booming glory had a magnetic sound that captured attention in every scene he was in. Low-note compatriot Nicholas Brownlee (Old Man / Eaglet / Fish-Footman / Off-Stage Voice) distinguished himself from the start as Richardson’s brother Tweedle (with both listed as “Old Man”), and they were a powerhouse pair throughout. Kihun Yoon, a South Korean native who has become one of L.A.’s local boys to watch, is funny as one of the rose-painting cards, but shines as the Executioner, with vocal strength through lines of florid incredulity.
- Similar triumphs were abundant in the rest of the cast, which included Lacy Jo Benter (Owl / Two), Rafael Moras (Pat / Cook / Invisible Man), Andrew Craig Brown, (Dodo / Frog-Footman / Seven), who all managed multiple roles well and sang with skill as well as droll charm.
Finally, Jan Henschel was marvelous as the inimitable Queen of Hearts, using her full mezzo power as she sounded her time-honored mantra, “Off with her head!” at every opportunity. (She’s a single-minded queen, she is.)
All that said, the orchestra was really the show’s biggest star, whether they’re urgently humming beneath the action (or inaction), or pounding away with a throbbing energy that makes the sung dialogue not just musical, but more urgent. Their music is largely tonal, at least bar for bar, but widely varied in style and texture, providing far more than mere accompaniment —is the orchestration that propels the story and makes time fly, and gives even outright whimsical passages a sense of underlying treachery and palpable unreality. More than anything, Chin’s score is characterized by an ongoing and rapidly changing sense of movement: each section has direction and dynamic power, even when that power is stewed into atmospheric chords. The instrumentation is percussion-heavy and sports accoutrements such as alarm clock, car horn, kitchenalia, pea-whistle and a whip.
Conductor Susanna Malkki was cool as a cucumber, bringing it all together with sleek and well-connected leadership of an orchestra a bit stretched, but sharply focused and in full command of the material. Within the sure persona, her wry sense of humor let the music shine and showed that she was enjoying the ride: when the first act winded down with atmospheric strings, bits of character statements in the woodwinds and occasional percussive statements, Malkki quietly walks off the stage before the orchestra finishes, clearly confident that they can mop up from there.
The night was peppered with short solos, showing off the considerable artistic assets the LA Phil has gathered. Particularly memorable were woodwind principals Julien Beaudiment (flute) and Burt Hara (clarinet), who played the non-vocal (but scripted on-screen, silent film-style) role of the caterpillar, pompously smoking atop his magic mushroom. Although this section seemed a bit longer than it needed to be, the clarinet was alive with personality, complete with the honks and whistles that express the audacious instrument’s full vocabulary.
The children’s chorus is put to good use within the opera, with a few solo roles (including Julian Bertet, the aforementioned young lad holding up the world) and some charming group appearances, including popping up through the stage set as a line of pink mice in the first act, then a soup chorus and green hedgehogs in the second. It is the soup chorus that showed what these talented younglings can really do: their pure melodic sound and crisp up-tempo bursts set off spot-on chord changes — Dickensian urchins have come to Wonderland.
Although the second act’s choruses were engaging and energetic, it was difficult to hear the adults from LAO’s chorus through much of the first act, and it seems they were a bit underused until the courtroom scene. Unfortunately, there were several choral moments that rang a bit canned — the chorus seemed glued to their scores, rather than part of the drama, and perhaps they needed more rehearsal. But once they loosened up, they seemed to be having a good time, and produced a very respectable sound. They were particularly good at the mob’s maniacal laughter at the end, which gave me chills.
Video/human interactions here are more a trade-off rather than the sort of live collaboration we’ve seen in other video-driven productions of recent years. But this is a style choice rather than a deficiency: the screen becomes an animated extension of the set, giving the storytellers a broader palette and keeping the main focus right where it should be — on the musical performers.
The costumes by Jemima Penny were whimsical and structurally innovative:
- Alice’s seemingly familiar blue dress was very wide at first glance, as if shored up by an abundance of petticoats. But as she turned this way and that, we could see that it was actually as flat as a tow-headed pancake, a sort of homage to very clean cartoon roadkill.
- The Duchess’ dress, on the other hand, added lumps and rolls to her body, with asymmetrical hips, shoulder pads eight times larger than any from the ‘80s, and a shaped wig/hat that defies physics.
- Some of the costumes appeared to offer some vocal challenges: the Executioner’s nearly full hood; a starched and pleated collar for the Queen that spans at least seven feet; the oversized rabbit head. All of these are visually stunning, but suggest big kudos to the performers who sang so well while wearing them.
As the opera drew to a close, we ended up where we began: with dreamlike rumblings and strummed piano strings, the orchestra’s sound fading into Alice’s final statements as she struggles to wake up. She alternated between her highest and lowest ranges, in a culmination that seemed oddly paced — it may have felt too long because of the supertitles, as the slow, deliberate statements by the performers can grow tedious when we’ve already read to the end of the line. Broad swathes of magnificent chaotic sound wrap up the dream and wake Alice up, and the opera is completed.
The audience’s reaction was a little too polite, tired, and perhaps bewildered. In a town where audiences offer standing ovations at the drop of any hat, few stood this evening. But the appreciation was genuine, and this opera is well worth another look. I look forward to Alice’s next visit to Los Angeles.
February 28, 2015: Los Angeles Philharmonic; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Susanna Mälkki, conductor
Netia Jones, director, costume and set design
Ralph Steadman, illustrations
Netia Jones/Lightmap, projection design
Mark McCullough, lighting designer
Jemima Penny, costume realization
Peggy Hickey, choreographer
Rachele Gilmore, Alice
Marie Arnet, Cheshire Cat
Dietrich Henschel, Mad Hatter
Andrew Watts, White Rabbit/Badger/March Hare
Christopher Lemmings, Mouse/Dormouse
Jenni Bank, Duchess
Jane Henschel, Queen of Hearts
Stephen Richardson, Old Man/Crab/King of Hearts
Nicholas Brownlee, Old Man/Eaglet/Fish-Footman/Off-Stage Voice
Lacey Jo Benter, Owl/Two
Rafael Moras, Pat/Cook/Invisible Man
Kihun Yoon, Five/Executioner/Duck
Andrew Craig Brown, Dodo/Frog-Footman/Seven
David Finch, Bill/Mock Turtle
Julian Bertet, Young Boy
Chris Bonomo, Francisco Cardeña, Cesar Cipriano, Eros Mendoza, Jee Teo, and John Todd, supernumeraries
Members of the Los Angeles Opera Chorus, Grant Gershon, Chorus Director
Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, Anne Tomlinson, artistic director
Michael Vitale, stage manager
Jean-Michaël Lavoie, assistant conductor
Vanessa Dionne, makeup design
Taylor Ruge, assistant director
John Todd, assistant choreographer
Nikki Hyde, assistant stage manager
Lindsay Lowy, assistant stage manager
Ian Winters, video technical consultant
Emma Keaveny-Roys, UK costume assistant
Richard Valitutto, rehearsal pianist
Chin: Alice in Wonderland (West Coast premiere)
- Unsuk Chin: courtesy of the Seoul Philharmonic
- All others: Mathew Imaging