Will TODD (b.1970) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (2013) [68.42]
Fflur Wyn (soprano) – Alice; James Cleverton (baritone) - White Rabbit; Robert Burt (tenor) - Dad; Victoria Simmonds (mezzo) - Queen of Hearts, Mum, Mad Hatter; Magid El-Busha (counter-tenor) - Cheshire Cat; Keel Watson (bass) – Caterpillar; John Lofthouse (baritone) - March Hare, White Knight; Maud Millar (soprano) - Humpty Dumpty, Duchess, Bottle, Victorian; Rosie Middleton (soprano) - Brat, Tweedledum, Victorian; Rosanne Havel (mezzo) - Brat, Tweedledee; Stephanie Bodsworth (soprano) – Dormouse; Edward Hughes (tenor) – Victorian; Henry Grant Kerswell (baritone) – Victorian;
Opera Holland Park/Matthew Waldren
rec. Angel Recording Studio and Jazzmouse Studio, London, 2015 SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD420 [68.42]
It is one of the delightful peculiarities of English literature that the two greatest Victorian writers of nonsense, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, were both in real life such serious people. Lear was a naturalist and illustrator of supreme ability, while Carroll in the form of his alter ego Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was a mathematician and philosopher with a keen interest in logic and paradoxes. While Lear’s landscapes and feel for nature to a certain degree coloured his nonsense poems and tales, Carroll’s logical interests absolutely permeated his two Alice books. As long ago as the 1960s Martyn Gardner published his Annotated Alice which comprehensively demonstrated how even some of Carroll’s most phantasmagorical flights of fancy derived from puzzles in mathematical sequences and linguistic philosophy. Jonathan Miller, in a notorious BBC television film a few years later, portrayed Carroll’s characters as satires on the Oxford dons of his day. Further research into Carroll’s undoubted fascination with pre-pubescent girls, which had occasioned concern even amongst his friends and contemporaries, spawned a whole series of more or less prurient investigations into his psychology; and more recent adaptations of the Alice stories have left the originals far behind. One recent TV series jettisoned the original plot almost totally, depicting the Mad Hatter as a semi-heroic sort of freedom fighter against the tyranny of the Red Queen; and even Joby Talbot’s ballet (reviewreviewreview) a few years back introduced a whole new element into the story with a burgeoning love affair between Alice and the Knave of Hearts.
By comparison with such radical re-workings of Carroll’s original, this operatic setting by Will Todd is relatively conventional. Although the title would suggest an adaptation of the first of the Alice books only, the librettist Maggie Gottlieb has also introduced characters from the second – Humpty Dumpty, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the White Knight – and made an attempt to bind the disparate episodes into a dramatically cogent whole. Rather less desirably, she has jettisoned practically all of Carroll’s original dialogue – which deprives the listener of the ability to follow what the singers are actually talking about, especially since the booklet does not furnish us with a copy of the text. The diction of the individual singers is generally excellent, but particularly in the ensemble passages many of the words are irretrievably lost.
The work was designed to be performed out of doors, with the action moving from one location to another in Holland Park and the audience following the singers and players around. This has conditioned the scoring of the work, with only instruments that can be transported featured in the score, and limited to those that make the best impact in the open air – no double-basses, harp or piano, no massed strings. The result is an ensemble that has many resemblances to that of Kurt Weill, a comparison that is further underlined by the jazz and blues elements that feature prominently in the music. There are also hints of Bernstein – not so much his musicals, but (in for example the Wonderland blues) from his eclectic Mass – and it is easy to hear how the results have achieved such a success with the public; this recording derives from the third successive revival in three years of the score by Opera Holland Park.
One might question some of the rather odd voicing of the parts – a female Hatter and Humpty Dumpty, a male Queen of Hearts (shades of Mr Darling doubling as the villainous Hook in Peter Pan) – which seem to have been constrained by musical rather than dramatic considerations (possibly also the doubling of parts with the presumed need for extensive changes of costume from one minute to the next). But perhaps this can be regarded as acceptable given the nonsensical nature of the plot and, although the failure to provide voice ranges for the individual singers might have helped to disentangle precisely who is singing what, the results are not too confusing. (The ranges given above derive from the composer’s website.)
The only singer to have an extended solo is Alice herself in the shape of her song I flew high in my dreams (track 15) which has an attractive melody nicely shaped by Fflur Wyn, although we lose some of her words in the climactic passages. I note that in an earlier review for this site Dan Morgan complained of some strenuous delivery from the other singers while commending their clarity of diction. I tend to find the singing clear without too much sense of strain, while (as noted) finding more difficulty in following their words. I should however mention an exception in the case of Keel Watson’s bluesy and woozy Caterpillar, whose Wonderland blues (track 9) come close to stealing the show. There are some rather odd peculiarities in the recorded balance – Alice seems to disappear half offstage at one point in track 16 – which may reflect the original staging. Where I do concur with Dan Morgan is in his commendation of the playing under Matthew Waldren, clearly and crisply delivered with every strand clear. Audiences who have enjoyed performances in Holland Park will welcome this opportunity to obtain a souvenir of that event; and the music, immediately approachable, will attract others as well. A video production might have been even better.