Alice in Wonderland: Unsuk Chin brings an inexhaustible array of orchestral tricks out of her hat

Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

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, and in the American soprano Rochele Gilmore it had the ideal performer for the title role.

After doing the international rounds for years, Unsuk Chin’s Alice had come to London with a ‘reduced’ score, but even so the stage was densely packed with players under Baldur Bronnimann’s direction; there was, in addition, a huge cast of singers, actors and dancers.

In the course of two hours Unsuk Chin brought out of her hat an inexhaustible array of orchestral tricks – everything from Baroque to neo-Berg – while the Steadman-Jones armoury of visual tricks easily kept pace. Singing styles varied from high coloratura to Sprechgesang to rap, while the choreography ensured that the drama was OTT from start to finish.

Carroll’s wide-eyed surrealism could not survive this mega-makeover, but there were so many individual tours de force that one forgave that directorial lese-majesty: Andrew Watts’s White Rabbit, Marie Arnet’s Cheshire Cat, Jane Henschel’s Queen of Hearts, Katherine Lacy’s bass-clarinet monologue for the smoking Caterpillar…