When Alice’s Adventures Under Ground first premiered a few years back, the thought of this frenzied and fraught production finding a home at the prestigious Royal Opera House seemed shocking. In a fantastical turn of events, Anthony McDonald has staged Gerald Barry’s operatic whirlwind with great success: the historic theatre is decked out with comical designs and witty costuming to evoke the absurd, in a space that is - typically - not so.
Clare Presland, Claudia Boyle and Hilary Summers (C) ROH 2020. Photo by Clive Barda
The zigzag of scenes collide into one another, bolting from an ever-apologetic White Rabbit at fault for his time-keeping to four men-turned-bottles begging to be sipped, gulped or chugged. As these well-known sequences whizz past, Alice and her audience are confronted by an abundance of characters including The Duchess, the Queen of Hearts and the Cheshire Cat. Moments of mellower comedic genius are intertwined when Humpty Dumpty takes the stage; he tackles the case of an "unbirthday present" in opposition to Alice’s decidedly structured and standard understanding of language and mathematics. McDonald’s take on Carrollian literary technique is certainly illustrative of the author’s penchant for nonsense. All childhood fantasies are fulfilled in this rendition of the classic tale.
The momentum maintained by the production does not seem to faze the vocal abilities of either Claudia Boyle or Jennifer France (both play the role of Alice). Fearlessly, both singers exhibit wondrous vocal agility, though this zippy production demands an enunciative perfection that is occasionally neglected. That being said, the cast manages to shoulder the seemingly impossible expectations of Anthony McDonald - backed by his own impressive operatic credits - and, for the most part, hits the mark. The ensemble piece makes use of Hilary Summers' raw talent, simultaneously demonstrating both Nicky Spence and Robert Murray’s comedic value. The doubling of roles showed just how much energy the cast had to offer - Red Bull might give you wings, but Barry’s music makes you soar.
In Barry’s composition, he not only recognises the literary masterpiece of Carroll’s Jabberwocky, but also makes reference to a history of musical tradition, from Beethoven’s Ode to Joy to It’s a Long Way to Tipperary. His talent is matched by Alice's manic execution of soprano scales: an oral depiction of her frenetic fall.
Mark Stone as The White Knight (C) ROH 2020. Photo by Clive Barda
Altogether, this production is one of mastery - it combines an array of styles and a series of complex scenes to create something positively ludicrous, but definitely wonderful. Its portrayal of literature is triumphant in its absurdity and victorious in its effect. A preposterous, senseless reenactment, and not to be missed.