Unsuk Chin: Alice in Wonderland, Barbican, London

Unsuk Chin’s take on Carroll, with David Henry Hwang’s libretto,
emphasizes the madcap mania of the original, where nothing is what it seems and
Reason is Irrelevant. This Alice in Wonderland is anything but prim.
It’s zany, anarchic and subversive, and also hilariously funny.

With her music, Unsuk Chin builds ambitious architecture, vast grand
edifices that stun by their sheer scale. This new version, with Netia Jones’s
semi-staging and Lloyd Moore’s re-orchestration, reveals the strong, basic
structure, releasing its manic, kinetic energy. Jones’s direction and designs
buzz with wit and colour. Video (Lightmap and Netia Jones) is good at depicting
impossibilities, like the vanishing Cheshire cat and his enduring grin. The
interplay between video and reality is so good that it’s quite unsettling,
which amplifies meaning. The illustrations are by Ralph Steadman: no trace of
twee. When the Mouse (Christopher Lemmings) is condemned, the crowd shout
“Disneyfy him!” A fate worse than death.

Kent Nagano conducted Unsuk Chin’s original score in Munich eight years
ago, but not all houses have such resources. Thus the Los Angeles Philharmomic
commissioned a version that’s easier to carry off and tour. Lloyd Moore is
sensitive to the spirit of Chin’s original. By reducing the number of
players, especially in the strings, the inherent liveliness in the music is
liberated. The choruses (BBC Singers, Tiffin Boys Choir) are still big, though
not quite the 40-60 singers specified in the original The emphasis is thus on
the quality of Chin’s instrumentation rather than sheer volume. Chin has a
passion for imaginative use of unusual instruments. The score employs
“kitchenalia” which means just that — alarm clocks, wind chimes, tweet
and crackles and pops. Vivid combinations, such as when the violins are
plucked, extending the sound of the mandolin. In Scene Two, ‘The Pool of
Tears’, the image of water is created by celli and basses, bowed with maximum
depth, creating a drone that’s both mournful and mysterious. The Caterpillar
sings, wordlessly. He, whose very existence depends on changing shape and form,
is represented by a single instrument, the bass clarinet, which, oddly enough,
looks like a metal caterpillar. Baldur Brˆnnimann conducted the BBC Symphony
Orchestra. He’s a new music specialist, alive to the quirky possibilities
this music offers.

Unsuk Chin’s vocal lines are counter-intuitive to syntax, often also
running counter to the orchestra. Text turns to tongue twister. Yet again,
that’s part of the concept of shape-changing instability. It’s not easy to
carry off well, though. Rachele Gilmour sang Alice in Los Angeles, which is
perhaps why she was cast again in London. Andrew Watts sang the White Rabbit,
Badger and March Hare in Munich and in LA, and is perhaps the most important
countertenor in his field, and the most experienced. He was divine, capturing
the jagged edges of his parts with demented aplomb, not only with his unique
voice but also with his body language. His White Rabbit camps along, prissily
wiggling his large rabbit behind: totally in character. A tour de force.

Marie Arnet’s Cheshire Cat was sung with spirit and spice. Perhaps the cat
knows that the way to survive in this crazy world is to grin, even when all
else fades. Jane Henschel was in superb form. Her Queen of Spades was gleefully
wicked, laced with shrill but well controlled vitriol, and she made it sound
like fun. Dietrich Henschel sang the Mad Hatter, using the metallic tension in
his voice to good effect. Impressive Christopher Lemmings Mouse, Dormouse and
Invisible Man. Stephen Richardson, a British stalwart, sang the King of Hearts,
while the other smaller parts were taken by American singers, from the LA
production: Andrew Craig Brown, Rafael Moras, Nicholas Brownlee. Kihun Yoon and
Lacey Jo Benter.

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Live in Concert on
Saturday 11th July at 7.30 pm and available for 30 days after broadcast on the
BBC Radio 3 website and BBC I Player

Anne Ozorio

image_description=Unsuk Chin
product_title=Unsuk Chin: Alice in Wonderland, Barbican Hall London, 8th March 2015
product_by=A review by Anne Ozorio
product_id=Above: Unsuk Chin