Story: Lewis Carroll’s enduring tales about the enchanting dreams of a little girl named Alice have charmed readers perpetually since Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, were first published in the 1840s. Carroll’s fanciful yarns have inspired countless artistic interpretations for more than 150 years, including takes by the likes of Walt Disney and Tim Burton.
This one-act, two-hour presentation by Korean composer Unsuk Chin and co-librettist David Henry Hwang offers an operatic rendition that premiered in Munich in 2007 and is now receiving its American premiere at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
Highlights: Dazzling technical work trumps the disappointing libretto co-written by Chin and Hwang in this OTSL production, valiantly disguising Chin’s discordant and bizarre composition. Set designer Allen Moyer stretches his vision beyond his functional scenic design to incorporate some whimsical video elements supplied by designer Greg Emetaz.
Those video illusions help explain Alice’s quick growing and shrinking spurts, or falling down a rabbit hole, particularly when enhanced by the lighting design of Christopher Akerlind. The latter uses shading variations to underscore various scenes, as do a number of props such as a giant key that dwarfs Alice in her shrunk mode. Additionally, the vivid costumes designed by James Schuette accentuate such colorful characters as the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts, complemented by Ashley Ryan’s exaggerated wigs and makeup.
Other Info: The masterful, circular use of the English language in the original stories written by Carroll, a renowned mathematician of his day, is mostly lost in this largely unsuccessful attempt by Chin and Hwang to put their spin on Carroll’s enchanting yarns. References to 20th and 21st century names such as Walt Disney, e.g., (“Disneyfied”) add little if anything to the action on stage.
While there are clever skits, such as choreographer Sean Curran miming the part of the philosophical Caterpillar while clarinetist James Meyer provides its musical voice, too often different skits take too long to develop in order to accommodate the less-than-affecting score.
Additionally, while performers are earnest and polished in their portrayals, few if any is given the chance to stretch his/her vocal abilities through any lengthy arias. The result is an evening of disappointment considering the fertile original material with which Chin and Hwang had to work.
The cast includes Ashley Emerson, so magnetic last year in the title role of The Daughter of the Regiment, as Alice. Emerson has the diminutive and appealing looks to convey Alice’s persona but too often in this opera is simply observing action. Similarly, David Trudgen has relatively little to do as the White Rabbit, albeit having a bit more to work with as the March Hare.
For whatever reason, the mean-spirited Duchess, played by Jenni Bank, breaks into a rap routine after she’s dumped her Baby-turned-Pig onto Alice, and the interpretation doesn’t really work. Ashley Logan is amusing as the slovenly Cook, but Tracy Dahl largely disappoints as the fanciful Cheshire Cat, although much of that is the fault of the librettists, who fail to capture the mathematically literary nuances of the character.
Julie Makerov is amusing as the imperious Queen of Hearts, aided by Bradley Smoak’s thick-witted King of Hearts. Aubrey Allicock does a nice turn as the officious Mad Hatter, aided by Matthew DiBattista as the somnambulant Dormouse and Trudgen as the March Hare in the Tea Party scene.
Conductor Michael Christie and members of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra valiantly trudge their way through the thick and often inaccessible score by Chin. Director James Robinson is responsible for overseeing the difficult task of managing a large ensemble amidst many brief scenes that require subsequent changes to other scenes.
It all gets curiouser and curiouser, and not in a good way. Carroll himself may have resorted to working Sudoku puzzles if he were in the audience for this fractured rendition of his timeless tales.
Opera: Alice in Wonderland
Group: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: June 19, 21, 23
Tickets: From $25 to $128; contact 961-0644 or www.ExperienceOpera.org
Rating: A 3 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Ken Howard