Gerald Barry’s take on Alice in Wonderland proves that opera is still alive and awake

Alice’s Adventures Under Ground has vitality, inventiveness and – as Barry likes to insist – tunes coming out of its ears.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The Royal Opera House, I’m delighted to report, has taken leave of its senses. There we all were on a Tuesday night, sitting in Edward Barry’s incomparable auditorium, noble in gold, red and turquoise, waiting to hear a new work – in this case a setting of that hoary old classic, Alice in Wonderland, by (no relation) the Irish composer, Gerald Barry. We were perhaps just a little nervous, remembering what he had so recently done to The Importance of Being Earnest, and having heard his Organ Concerto of a few seasons back, which inverted, perverted, distorted and dislocated any expectation one might have had of the genre. 

On the dot of seven, the curtains duly parted and a comforting spectacle was revealed: an 18th-century proscenium stage, ravishing en grisaille, with a white rabbit lolling to one side, dangling a huge fob watch, and at the centre of the stage a young girl – Alice, we could only assume – in her underwear. Victorian underwear, hoops and all. A moment of repose, and then any sense of stability disappeared: we were off, the rabbit suddenly aware of time and the superb, fearless, who-dares-wins Covent Garden orchestra in full baroque tilt. The musicians hurled out thrilling brass riffs over which Claire Boyle (Alice) sent coloratura rockets in her stratospherically high soprano, some of which may only have been audible to dogs.

From that moment on, it was one damned thing after another. Deliciously breathless, Antony McDonald – who both designed and directed the astonishing farrago – matched and sometimes exceeded Barry’s wildest flourishes. Both men seemed to have access to a limitless fantasy which, though bearing slim resemblance either to John Tenniel’s classic illustrations or Lewis Carroll’s original text, perfectly embodies Alice in Wonderland’s spirit. A row of babies, each with the face of Gordon Brown, suddenly and nightmarishly appear; no sooner than they are established, they’re gone. The audience is as agog as Alice; we have fallen down that rabbit hole with her, our minds in a permanent state of bogglement. The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party is far, far madder than anything imagined by Carroll, succeeded by ominous processional brass which ushers in the White Queen. On the backdrop, meanwhile, we see a painted Lewis Carroll, at the keyboard. 

Much of the music is about music: the Queen of Hearts’s croquet match is rendered as a musical battle royal, with arpeggios and scales hurled like javelins between Alice and the band. Without warning, we’re in a polyglot madhouse, as Carroll’s The Jabberwocky – “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/Did gyre and gimble in the wabe” – is sung in French, Russian and German. Why not? Anything goes. The chess game sequence becomes a ride to the abyss; brass toccatas stomp furiously though the piece. It is a barrage, but behind it all lies a palpable rigour, both scenically and musically, its purpose to engender a kind of delirium. 

Asked what, if anything, he wants listeners to take away from his music, Barry replied “joy”. In Alice, he quotes Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” – hilariously, of course, but it’s there, right at the heart of things. Like those other masters of disciplined mayhem, Kurt Schwertsik and HK Gruber, Barry was a pupil of Karlheinz Stockhausen. The music of the severe, Buddhistically inclined Darmstadt master seems to have left no trace on his pupils’ work, but whatever it was his students imbibed, it has rendered them musically multilingual, deeply unpredictable, in total command of their material, and always, always, playful. 

The demands Barry’s music makes of its interpreters are extreme. The score is fast and furious; in one two-minute section there are, claims the tenor Sam Furness (who plays, inter alia, the Mad Hatter, the White King, the Rabbit and Tweedledum), 55 top Bs and six top Cs. He and his colleagues sing all this as if it were not only effortless but fun – all the while jousting, taking tea, and racing offstage to change costume. There are two casts; all seven singers I saw were of surpassing brilliance, though Claudia Boyle’s tireless Alice, nothing short of heroic, reaching ever higher up into a range that seems to have no limits, is right at the centre of the anarchy, barely leaving the stage for a minute. 

In the pit Thomas Adès cracks the whip, controlling this extraordinary circus, articulating every phrase, every gesture, entering generously and vividly into the mind of a fellow composer whose music in no way resembles his own. The Opera House has done wonderfully well to lavish every resource on the 50-minute piece, and to programme no less than nine performances in the main house. If anything will convince people that opera is alive and awake it is this, with its glorious vitality, inventiveness and – as Barry likes to insist – tunes coming out of its ears. Some performances are scheduled during the morning and early afternoon and children are eagerly encouraged. Few of them, however, will be as young at heart as the nearly septuagenarian composer. 

This article appears in the 14 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power without purpose