It is rumoured that the character of the Dodo in the book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a caricature of Lewis Carroll himself, created as a consequence of Carroll’s stammer and hence his inability to properly pronounce his true surname Dodgson. It is more widely assumed (despite repeated denials of its veracity from the author himself) that the heroine Alice was based on Alice Liddell, the daughter of a close friend of Carroll’s during his time at Christ Church, Oxford. Carroll supposedly invented the story and narrated it to Alice who begged him to write it down for her, not realising how impactful the story would eventually become; indeed the whole concept of Liddell spending her life in the shadow of the character is the subject of the play Peter & Alice, which starred Judi Dench at the Noel Coward Theatre in 2013. The Dodo is not featured in Maggie Gottlieb’s libretto but the central heroine herself (as expected) plays the starring role in this light-hearted children’s opera.
Gottlieb and composer Will Todd have taken the well-loved, fantastical children’s story and adapted it into a wonderfully accessible work for families to enjoy. The libretto is well constructed with a younger audience in mind, working in themes that will both educate and appeal to children. The score is also well composed, with a variety of musical styles that conjure up images of fantasy and escapism whilst also staying alert and jumpy to hold the attention of a generation that is altogether more difficult to engage. In particular the inclusion of a blues-style bass score for the Caterpillar (Keel Watson) is inspired, giving children exposure to new genres in accessible ways.
Director Martin Duncan has the family theme clearly in mind for this production – the chorus interact with the audience as they take their seats, prancing up and down the aisles in Victorian garb that generates laughter and curiosity all round. Leslie Travers’ set is brightly coloured postcards with eye-catching designs that subtly link in to the story itself. The costumes for the more fantastical characters are brightly coloured; the Queen of Hearts (Robert Burt) resembles a pantomime dame, an overly extravagant dress and clown makeup. Duncan has worked well with Gottlieb and Todd to cast a wide variety of voices for the show, from Watson’s bass through the countertenor of the Cheshire Cat (Magid El-Bushra) all the way up to the virtuoso soprano line from the ‘Drink Me’ bottle (Fleur De Bray). All of this adds dimension and education to the overall experience, which can only be a good thing.
Alice (Fflur Wyn) and the Rabbit (James Cleverton) are the central friendship here. They have a natural chemistry and harmonise well during the recitative passages of the opera. Alice in particular acts well through song, from the arguments about individuality and creativity with the classroom teacher (“Everyone must learn to think the same, it’s the only way of staying the same”) to an uplifting and inspiring aria about realising your dreams. Vocal abilities of the overall cast are high; the main issue lies in projection. Either the orchestra on the whole are too loud, the acoustic of the venue is poor or the cast are too quiet – whichever the reason they are often drowned out in lower registers; however ingenious the lyric may be, it is lost in translation. The main flaw with the plot is in the final scenes, which seem to descend into a poor pantomime imitation – a shame considering the remainder of the opera walks the line between entertaining and tacky very well indeed.
It is not easy to capture a child’s attention for 75 minutes uninterrupted and this production on the whole delivers that for the younger members of the audience. For the slightly older of us present, it has potential. Perhaps Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a story so fantastical that the reality can never quite stack up to imagination, or perhaps all it needs is to iron out the production kinks so that adults too can be swept up by the magical land that the children were engrossed by.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is playing Royal Opera House until 7 November. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Opera House website. Photo by Johan Persson.