Thursday 23 July 2015

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Will Todd - Signum Classics
Will Todd Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; Fflur Wyn, Magid El-Bushra, James Cleverton, Robert Burt, Victoria Simmonds, Keel Watson, John Lofthouse, Opera Holland Park, cond: Matthew Waldren; Signum Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 14 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Will Todd's magical open air opera comes into the studio

Opera Holland Park commissioned Alice's Adventures in Wonderland for performance in 2013, as a follow up to their promenade performances of Tobias Picker's The Fabulous Mr Fox. Opera Holland Park's first commission, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland represented a serious investment in the future of opera and was designed not so much to be a children's opera as a family one, and intended as an accessible entry-level opera which would tempt people to explore further. Will Todd was commissioned to create a family friendly opera for promenade performances out of doors (on the Yucca Lawn at Holland Park). Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has proved remarkably enduring, returning in 2014 and 2015 with indoor performances at Covent Garden's Linbury Studio theatre in November 2015 and this studio recording from Signum Classics.

Many of the original cast have returned to the opera each year and this disc includes quite a number of them, with Fflur Wyn as Alice (a role she is singing this year at Opera Holland Park in tandem with the title role in Delibes' Lakme), James Cleverton as the Rabbit, Robert Burt as Dad and the Queen of Hearts, Victoria Simmonds as Mum and the Mad Hatter, Magid El-Bushra as the Cheshire Cat, Keel Watson as the Caterpillar, John Lofthouse as the March Hare and the White Knight, Maud Millar as Humpty Dumpty, the Duchess, the Bottle and a Victorian, Rosie Middleton as a brat, Tweedledum and a Victorian, Rosanne Havel as a brat and Tweedledee, Stephanie Bodsworth as the Dormouse, and Edward Hughes and Henry Grant Kerswell as Victorians. Matthew Waldren conducts an ensemble of 11 instrumentalists. The opera was produced by Opera Holland Park, producer James Clutton, associate producer Sarah Crabtree and general manager Michael Volpe.

Will Todd told me, when I talked to him at the tea party which launched the Alice Cd, that he found the Alice stories a little weird, and rather episodic so lacking in narrative strength needed for an opera. Will Todd and librettist Maggie Gottlieb have taken the familiar characters and scenes and applied them to a new plot which gives Alice a sense of purpose, and an 'ah' moment at the end when all is resolved.

The opera was written for very particular circumstances, a promenade performance out of door with no microphones and mobile singers and musicians. Live, it is a real feat of magic and the miracle is that it works so well on disc. Not everyone will like Will Todd and Maggie Gottlieb's changes with the Queen of Hearts featuring as a slave driving baddy, and a group of Victorians who link the scenes (and usher the cast to the next location during the live performances).

Will Todd has a highly melodic turn of phrase and he combines this with a lively orchestration so that the overture feels more like the overture to a musical than an opera. Will Todd weaves tunes throughout the piece, with a number of characters getting stand-out arias but he never overdoes the melodic charm. Unlike in a musical, here the musical material is developed and can wander in various directions depending the drama. We don't get the repetitive, strophic songs of musical theatre. And everything is linked by recitative dialogue which is highly characterful, with some sly references included in the orchestration, which makes it far more than noodling.

The family-friendly tone comes as much from the narrative speed, as the melodic feel of the music. The scenes fly by, quite pell mell, ensuring that young audiences are enchanted and never bored and the music for the Queen of Hearts is fun rather than really dark.

Highlights along the way include a wonderfully chromatic sliding Cheshire from Magid El-Bushra, some truly mad tea-party antics from  the Mad Hatter (Victoria Simmonds), March Hare (John Lofthouse) and Dormouse (Stephanie Bodsworth), and a nicely didactic Humpty Dumpty (Maud Millar). Though Tweedles Dum and Dee (Rosie Middleton and Rosanne Havel) do appear we don't get the classic scene. John Lofthouse is a delight as the White Knight who rides to the rescue on Leslie the horse (who even has his own twitter feed), whilst James Cleverton brings a nice sense of edgy mystery to the Rabbit. My favourite though must be the wonderful blues sung by Keel Watson's delightfully spaced-out caterpillar.

Fflur Wyn is simply brilliant as Alice. She sings her big tune with a nice degree of amplitude and charm, but also brings a lovely sense of common-sense directness to the character. Alice is a real creation, a rather outspoken little girl.

The CD booklet includes a synopsis but not libretto, not that you need one as the cast's diction is superb throughout.

Matthew Waldren conducts the 11 piece orchestra with aplomb, and recorded in the studio we get to appreciate far more of the detail in Will Todd's orchestration (which includes such incidental delights as an accordion which accompanies the Victorians in the perambulations round the set).

It is always difficult assessing a work you know in the theatre when it appears on disc, and this is especially true of a piece like this which is intended to be family friendly. On the one hand it is not quite the sort of piece which I would listen to regularly, but on the other it works extremely well on disc. Musically I do wonder whether the last section sags, with the inserted drama about the Duchess (Maud Millar) and her lost husband. But I think that anyone who has seen the show will find this a complete delight and many who have not will find it a great introduction.

Will Todd - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland [68.42]
Alice - Fflur Wyn
Rabbit - James Cleverton
Dad/Queen of Hearts - Robert Burt
Mum/Mad Hatter - Victoria Simmonds
Cheshire Cat - Magid El-Bushra
Caterpillar - Keel Watson
March Hare/White Knight - John Lofthouse
Humpty Dumpty/Duchess/Bottle/Victorian - Maud Millar
Brat/Tweedledum/Victorian - Rosie Middleon
Brat/Tweedledee - Rosanne Havel
Dormouse - Stephanie Bodsworth
Victorian - Edward Hughes
Victorian - Henry Grant Kerswell
Conductor Matthew Waldren
Recorded at Angel Recording Studios & Jazzmouse Studios
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