Saturday 15 February 2020

Alice's Adventures Under Ground at the Royal, or, A Tired Mockery of Genre

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 8th February 2020.

The previous Gerald Barry opera I encountered, his version of The Importance of Being Ernest, was widely praised. I was much less convinced, and I really only booked for this because of my completionist tendency. It proved to be a tedious fifty five minutes.

But to start with the positives. The performances were of a very high standard. Jennifer France in the title role had a clear, piercing sound admirably suited to the high lying style of most of what vocal writing the work affords her. The supporting cast of Allison Cook, Carole Wilson, Nicky Spence, Robert Murray, Stephen Richardson and Alan Ewing all perform multiple roles in fine voices (again when allowed by the score to exercise them) and high energy commitment through many costume changes and running about the playing area. In the pit Thomas Ades draws crisp focused playing from the Royal Opera House Orchestra (in contrast to the last time I heard their partnership - a disappointing Rake's Progress) but can't disguise the shortcomings of the score in that department either.

For the fundamental problem is the work. Gerald Barry has again produced his own libretto drawing on Lewis Carroll's stories. As with his Wilde adaptation Barry once again seems determined to include as much text as possible, but he sets considerably less of it here. Instead there's an enormous amount of speech - sometimes but not always delivered as sprechgesang. It never made much sense to me why things were spoken or sung and the setting, if it can be called that when so much of it is spoken rarely achieves additional impact from the marriage of text and music. The score is limited in range. Barry borrows (Beethoven's Ode to Joy) and imitates (I particularly noted Mozart, Debussy and Weill) in all cases making this listener pine for the original. In the more original sections the orchestra tends to erupt, often with heavy use of brass. In so far as text is actually set, as opposed to spoken, there's a lot of textual repetition which tends to bore quite quickly.

Overall it seemed to me that Barry was fundamentally engaged in mocking the genre of opera. I was reminded of the tendency of many modern playwrights to go on tediously about how difficult it is to write plays these days. If only Barry's mockery was funny - some around me laughed, but none of it did anything for me in that regard - indeed Barry rather sucks the humour out of Carroll's original. When we were subjected to Jabberwocky in a fourth language I felt like screaming.

Director and Designer Antony McDonald with whom this was, I think, my first encounter, throws activity at the problem - with a busy staging, endless changes of costume, and some rather half-hearted use of projections. There's nothing wrong with the visuals but they can't rescue the work.

Some around me were enthusiastic - certainly the performers deserved credit. It was also good to see so many children at the House, though I had the impression that at least some in my vicinity were not gripped by proceedings. Both myself and my partner were bored. To be avoided if revived.

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