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Sunday, 28 July 2013

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

 Alice in Wonderland at Opera Holland Park
Alice in Wonderland
at Opera Holland Park
The family opera at Opera Holland Park has become something of a welcome fixture. For the last few years they have performed Tobias Picker's The Fabulous Mister Fox on the lawns in front of Holland Park House. Now this year Opera Holland Park has ventured into creating its own family friendly opera with their commission of Will Todd's Alice's Adventres in Wonderland.. Performed by a cast of 15 and a band of 11, this was no small undertaking. Designer Leslie Travers created four different settings dotted about the woods and Martin Duncan's lively production kept everyone's interest, including even the smaller children. The hard working cast included Fflur Wyn as Alice, James Cleverton as the White Rabbit, Robert Burt as Dad and the Red Queen, Hanna Hipp as Mum and the Mad Hatter, James Laing as the Cheshire Cat, Keel Watson as the Caterpillar, John Lofthouse as the March Hare and the White Knight, Patricia Orr as Humpty Dumpty and the Duchess, Clara Hendrick and Elaine Tate as the Brats and Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, Stephanie Bodsworth as the Dormouse and Maud Millar, Rosie Middleton, Edward Hughes and Henry Grant Kerswell as Victorians. The instrumental ensemble was conducted by Natalie Murray.

As we entered the yucca lawn were were handed a cushion to sit on and shown to the first playing area by the four Victorians (Maud Millar, Rosie Middleton, Edward Hughes and Henry Grant Kerswell) welcoming us to Grimston, a grey grim town evoked by Travers imaginative set of postcards (all of the sets were postcard themed). As Alice, Fflur Wyn, and her parents, Robert Burt and Hanna Hip, and her two brattish brothers, Clara Hendrick and Elaine Tate, sheltered from the rain there was a pet shop including a White Rabbit, James Cleverton looking very dashing despite his huge ears.

The White Rabbit talked to Alice and before you knew it, she was whisked off down a hole, and so were we. As the scene changed to the next setting, the four Victorians ushered the audience to the next area, all the while singing 'Where's Alice' and accompanied by a piano accordion and saxophone whose players wandered along with the audience.

There were four location changes during the show, each accomplished with the same facility and three times, the entire band moved, with linking music played by the accordionist and saxophone player. There were no awkward breaks and the four Victorians sang their way through the ambulant breaks, staying in character with the two women bickering amicably.

The audience, predominantly young children and their parents, seemed to take all this in their stride and it added to the slightly surreal nature of the enterprise. For a start, there was no amplification, the singers sang and the players played but the results worked very well, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to play opera out doors, on the move, in a wood.

Maggie Gottlieb's libretto could be described as a free fantasia on Alice in Wonderland. Most of the characters were there, but elements of the plot of the book were missing; so there was no awkward growing and shrinking for Alice, the Queen of Hearts lacked her entourage and there was no croquet. Instead Gottlieb had constructed a plot which owed a little something to the recent Alice film. The Queen of Hearts (Robert Burt), was a dictatorial interloper and after the Mad Hatter's tea partly all the inhabitants were forced to work in the Queen's tart factory with Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee as enforcers. It was Alice's role to save Wonderland.

It gave a coherent, strongly characterised and highly coloured plot onto which Gottlied hung some delightful lyrics. Gottlieb managed to weave in quite a bit of Lewis Carroll. There was lots of word play, not only in the scene where Humpty Dumpty, Patricia Orr, was tutoring the White Rabbit and Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee but  also when Alice and the White Knight, John Lofthouse, were helping the Duchess, Patricia Orr (here no longer ugly), to remember by listing names beginning with H.

Many of the traditional scenes were imaginatively woven into this new plot. There was James Laing as a wonderfully louche, kingfisher blue lounge lizard of a Cheshire Cat, complete with alarming grin. Hanna Hipp was a delightfully mad, Mad Hatter, supported by John Lofthouse's bouncing March Hare and Stephanie Bodworth's Dormouse having a perpetual tea party on their crooked table. Perhaps the most memorable of all was Keel Watson's Caterpillar, who got to sing a most delightful blues.

Will Todd's music was firmly based in the popular idiom and he wrote a series of strongly characterised numbers giving the 11 piece band (two violins, viola, cello, accordion, saxophone/flute, trumpet, trombone, drums, bass and piano), a series of clear 'numbers' in popular style such as the Caterpillar's blues.

Perhaps the vocal lines could have been a little more memorable, but Todd's vocal lines cleverly flirted with all out popular numbers but never quite fully settled into them. The recitative sections did perhaps have a little too much of the noodle till ready element in them, with the feeling that the real character was in the orchestra. But hearing music in the open air is not ideal and Todd must be congratulated for creating a series of strongly characterised moments which came over well. He was helped by a hard working cast.

Fflur Wyn was very inch Alice and had the biggest role. She clearly developed a strong interaction with the young audience and they were clearly riveted. Todd gave her a number of bit moments, notably a lovely aria about the power of dreams. James Laing was a delightful, if underused, Cheshire Cat with James Cleverton as a rather suave White Rabbit.

Clara Hendrick and Elaine Tate as Tweedles Dum and Dee didn't get heir famous scene with Alice, but they were gloriously ubiquitous. Maud Millar, besides being one of the Victorians, was a dottily coloratura singing bottle. As I have said, Keel Watson perhaps got the best number in his blues and he put it over with wonderfully strong personalty. Hanna Hipp was a highly characterised Mad Hatter, with John Lofthouse bouncing around as the March Hare and Stephanie Bodworth as a perpetually sleepy Dormouse. Lofthouse also contributed a charmingly crazy White Knight. Robert Burt was an imperious Queen of Hearts complete with a magnificent red velvet gown.

The instrumental ensemble was unflappably conducted by Natalie Murray, and all coped admirably with the peripatetic nature of the piece, playing with character and aplomb (even when it started raining during the finale). Martin Duncan's lively production kept things moving and ensured all of the characters were delineated clearly and strongly. And the big test was that the younger members of the audience (including one little girl dressed as Alice) remained entranced throughout the 70 minutes, all dutifully getting up and moving location, sitting where they were told and watching the singers with immense concentration.

At the front were a group of partially sighted children attending through the auspices of the RNIB (who use the character of Alice in their publicity)nand whom OHP are supporting.

I'd be interested to hear Will Todd's score in studio conditions and suspect that it might benefit from a little tweaking. But everyone concerned created a finely entertaining event, whose complex logistics were managed with discreet efficiently by the OHP staff. With this new Alice in Wonderland I think  OHP ware onto a winner.

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