Review: ALICE'S ADVENTURES UNDER GROUND, Barbican, 28 November 2016

It couldn't have been better timed. When Gerald Barry started work on his latest project - an operatic take on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - the world was still rotating smoothly on its axis, business as usual. But fast-forward a year to the European premiere and we find ourselves in a topsy-turvy alternative reality, with a celebrity president, a UK soon to be out of Europe, and madness everywhere we turn. Suddenly a trip down a rabbit hole seems less a fantasy than a mirror for absurdities rather closer to home. But if the absurdity feels familiar, the mood is quite the reverse, because Barry's opera is utterly, bewitchingly joyful - 50 minutes of batter-you-round-the-head-with-a-bunch-of-flowers brilliance.

If condensing Lewis Carroll's extravagant tale into 50 minutes and just seven singers sounds impossible then, like Alice herself, you'd better get used to believing six impossible things before breakfast. Barry makes it work by sheer force of musical will, hurling his ideas into a score that doesn't draw breath from its first ebullient orchestral arpeggios to its sudden, ambiguous ending, dashing like the terminally unpunctual White Rabbit from scene to scene at breakneck pace. If you thought Barry's glorious The Importance of Being Earnest was swift then think again. In many ways it was just the warm-up for this operatic sprint.

Who else but soprano Barbara Hannigan could be Barry's Alice? This long-standing collaboration has already yielded the deliciously brittle Cecily Cardew in Earnest (who could forget that loudspeaker battle with Gwendolen) and La Plus Forte - a one-act opera for soprano and orchestra - and now an Alice who has long since left off playing the straight man to the fantastical folk around her, and has joined them in their colourful madness. Matching the orchestra scale for scale in a virtuoso opening, it's Hannigan who sets up the opera's curious additional narrative in which rabbit-hole activities (croquet matches, knights' duels, tea parties) become the surreal double for musical ones, whether piano lessons or singer's warm-ups.

We're all mad in music, Barry seems to say, and nobody more so than the Britten Sinfonia, who under Thomas Ades's baton gamely hurl themselves into a moto perpetuo of a score that drags along with it a hefty quota of brass (including tuba and bass trombone) as well a clanking, metallic woodwind section, used almost percussively at times. As with Earnest before there are some deliciously apt textural moments in the score.

A duet for dormouse (Hilary Summers' quivering contralto) and double bass, an unexpectedly patrician waltz for the two duelling knights (Mark Stone and Joshua Bloom) and a stumbling, catch-me-if-you-can Walrus & Carpenter duet for Summers and soprano Alison Cook, in which the musical porpoise really does threaten to tread on the melodic tail in front of him. Allan Clayton's White Rabbit chatters and mutters with desperate urgency, the crazed leader of a quartet of male voices (Pete Tantsits, Mark Stone, Joshua Bloom) whose ensembles offer some of the more outright surreal moments of the evenings.

Barry's unpredictable invention, his magpie ear for musical borrowings and his giddy disregard for beauty in any conventional sense makes for an exhilarating night in the concert hall. Could it transfer to the opera house? It's hard to see how. The sheer pace of the stage directions, flying past in the surtitles faster than the audience could read them, suggests that live action might simple be too slow, too cumbersome. Animation? Perhaps. At barely an hour's length Alice is only half an evening's opera - an expensive proposition for any house, and a tricky piece to pair. But all Carroll's imaginative fantasy is there in the score, which - as we saw last night - needs no help to conjure its images.

The startling joy of Earnest is the friction between composer and material, the joyous collision of orderly, drawing-room comedy and anarchic musical madcappery. Barry brought out something latent in Wilde's play, ripped it at the seams while preserving its essence. In Alice, Barry has a source so close to his own aesthetic that while the fusion is skilful and elegant, it inevitably lacks the revelatory impact of the earlier project. Only in the sudden chill of the ending - a sharp breeze at the end of an early summer day - catches some of that surprise, that emotive invention.


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