WELSH NATIONAL OPERA: ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND | STAGE REVIEW
Dyffryn Gardens, Vale Of Glamorgan , Fri 25 June
A welcome return to live performance in Wales: how I’ve missed our cultural institutions, with Welsh National Opera as one of the bigger examples. It had to be them as the first work to see live, after (as they stated on their own social media) a hiatus of 468 days. This is the first job for a lot of people since and the passion has not faded away.
In what might be the most apt choice of programme, in a fitting setting, Opera Holland Park’s newest version of Lewis Carrol’s Alice In Wonderland is given a contemporary twist. Alice’s time spent in Wonderland is her ‘new normal’, away from the dreary town she lives in. Most of the familiar, maddening characters are here and it’s the usual formula.
There isn’t really a lot you can do with Alice today. The oversaturation with the material has resulted from Tim Burton, the Disney animated classic and the warped stop-motion by Jan Švankmajer remaining the cinema’s more famous additions. Curiouser, Alice has been at the opera before and it’s quite recent. The near-perfect if still flawed piece by Unsuk Chin’s is perhaps the best and Gerald Barry’s Alice’s Adventures Underground has been seen at the Royal Opera as recently as February 2020.
Composer Will Todd here has just about created the right piece for both children and adults alike. The score is quirky and rambunctious, with a flavour for every character in the manic drive-thru that is Wonderland. Not afraid to try out different types of music, it all goes along quite swingingly. The music to shuffle us off our feet to the next corner of the show is perhaps the most memorable, jazzy with an accordion lingering in the ear.
Directed in this revival by Caroline Chaney, you can feel the fun and hunger to get back to basics. Conductor Frederick Brown maintained momentum during the many tone shifts and genre-hopping antics throughout this hour and a bit; designer Leslie Travers has made tactile sets, built for purpose. One gripe would be the constant manoeuvring to the next scene – the Edwardian gardens are huge at Dyffryn and more distancing could maybe have been in place in a longer strip within its acres of greenery.
The cast of many singers are brimming with a merry, enthusiastic joy. Alice, played by Fflur Wyn, has done a variety of roles with WNO, and here she has a childlike abandon, her voice in fine form even after the break and exposed to the elements. Benjamin Bevan is the anxious White Rabbit, Alice’s guide and right hand to the revolution. The Caterpillar – Kelvin Thomas – is a witty little role, its nod to soul music offering pleasing moments. Counter-tenor Feargal Mostyn-Williams has wicked flickers as the Cheshire Cat, with silky, yearning music, yet stealing the show is Adam Gilbert as the Queen Of Hearts, an expectedly robust and absurd role.
The whole troupe of singers are stellar: if only there was enough space to list them all. The libretto by Maggie Gottlieb is also quick-witted and has some great moments in the Queen’s ramblings, lists of food and places in Wales beginning with ‘H’, all highlights. This shall go down as a historic production for WNO, as we finally emerge out of the pandemic and into the theatre space once more.
Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland continues at Dyffryn Gardens until Sat 3 July. Info: here
words JAMES ELLIS photos JIMMY SWINDELLS