Unsuk Chin: reviews of Alice in Los Angeles and London
Unsuk Chin's opera Alice in Wonderland received a new multi-media staging in Los Angeles and London in March to celebrate the book's 150th anniversary.
Following productions in Munich, Geneva, Bielefeld and Saint Louis, Unsuk Chin's surreal opera Alice in Wonderland travelled to Los Angeles and London in March in a new multi-media staging by Netia Jones, combining video with the gonzo illustrations of artist Ralph Steadman. In the 150th anniversary year of Lewis Carroll's classic book, the new staging attracted packed houses at Walt Disney Hall in LA and the Barbican in London, with press praising "the kaleidoscopic colors of Ms. Chin’s score" (New York Times).
"Chin's opera is so brilliantly orchestrated that the instruments alone are more than enough to steal all of an audience's attention... Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki got a dazzling array of bright colors from the L.A. Phil. As Alice, soprano Rachele Gilmore took a listener to seemingly new places; the higher her voice went, the more wondrous the wonderland. But Chin's Alice is not childish. It is a dream opera with a dark side. The libretto by David Henry Hwang functions on the level of Carrollian wordplay rather than narrative. Text here is secondary to music. We, of course, know the characters. But the White Rabbit, Mad Hatter, Cheshire Cat and Queen of Hearts are weird not in the way of surreal fantasy but rather as dreams pregnant with disturbing meaning."
Los Angeles Times
"With the ever-fertile musical imagination of Unsuk Chin, and with Netia Jones’s characteristically brilliant meld of projected graphics and live action; with pen-and-ink-blot drawings by veteran cartoonist Ralph Steadman, and with a libretto-on-speed by the prolific David Henry Hwang, this opera on Lewis Carroll’s evergreen fable was a show of all the talents... In the course of two hours Unsuk Chin brought out of her hat an inexhaustible array of orchestral tricks"
"[The opera's] effects are frequently ingenious. The orchestra responds with waves of shuddering sound to a lullaby Alice sings to a baby who’s been changed into a pig, and the ensemble has an aquatic glimmer as Alice swims with a mouse. The vocal writing is distinctive without seeming awkward, with innocent-seeming lines for Alice and stratospheric, sinuous ones for the Cheshire Cat. She is a master of creative combinations. When the White Rabbit rhapsodizes about a lost item of clothing — "What the world needs now," he sings, "is love, sweet gloves" — Ms. Chin layers a somber orchestral rustle, a solo violin melody and a plaintive countertenor vocal line. For Alice’s scene with the hookah-smoking caterpillar (silent in this version), a bass clarinet plays a long solo that’s the jazzy, angular love child of Rhapsody in Blue and The Rite of Spring."
New York Times
"Where [Chin] scores handsomely is in her hyper-descriptive score... The lake of tears is a rippling seascape; the Caterpillar purely voiced by a fiendish bass clarinet; and the pepper-loving Cook provokes an infectious sneeze around the orchestra. Although this was actually a thinned down version of the full orchestration, the range of moods and colours that Chin finds is vast, at times overwhelming. So is the spread of operatic references, including a neo-baroque frenzy surrounding the March Hare’s nonsense riddles. This is a wonderland of a score, ably controlled by conductor Baldur Brönnimann and well sung by the cast, among them Rachele Gilmore, serene in the vocal stratosphere as Alice, Marie Arnet’s lusciously voiced Cat and the frenzied falsetto of Andrew Watts’s clock-watching bunny."
"Chin’s Alice music is kaleidoscopic, even psychedelic. A student of Ligeti, she produces the teeming, pixilated textures of her master, but there are other influences as well. The three early ballets of Stravinsky and the magical music of Ravel and Bartók supply many of Chin’s coloristic and rhythmic antecedents. She puts them on steroids. The orchestra is gigantic, the percussion section particularly well populated with such instruments as a siren, alarm clock, bird whistle, trash cans and whips.
Chin’s score inhabits a brilliant, subtle wonderland of its own. Even in the reduced orchestration used here it was easy to be entranced by her music’s evanescent beauty at the pool of tears or the Cheshire Cat’s vanishing smile."
"The opera’s UK premiere at the Barbican immediately confirmed Chin’s talents as a composer... Chin’s Alice revels in paradox and riddles, pastiche and parody. The timbres are ear-piercingly bright, precise and often mesmerising."
Unsuk Chin's second opera, Alice Through the Looking Glass, is commissioned by The Royal Opera in London for premiere in the 2018/19 season.
> Further information on Work: Alice in Wonderland
Photo: Mark Allan/Barbican