Lewis Carroll’s Alice books are marvels of allusion and parody, turning contemporary memes inside out and conventional wisdom on its head. Which make them a perfect fit for composer Gerald Barry. The Irish composer has, after all, reinterpreted Handel (and others) in The Intelligence Park and The Triumph and Beauty and Deceit, turned Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant into an opera, and scored a wild success with The Importance of Being Earnest.
It was, in fact, during rehearsals for The Importance of Being Earnest in England that the suitability of Alice as Barry’s next opera subject came up. The composer went out and bought a copy of The Annotated Alice, and wrote his own libretto, as he had for Earnest. Barry generally follows the course of the two books, with many omissions, choosing scenes that appealed to him and violently collapsing narrative linkages and transitions. He took Carroll’s original title for Alice in Wonderland as the title of his new opera.
“Alice has absolutely everything you could possibly want in it,” Barry says. “The whole world is in it, every single thing you could imagine – from me, anyway. Emotionally, it runs through the whole gamut. Its range is extraordinary.”
Here Barry uses a bigger orchestra than he had in Earnest, like a largish Mozart orchestra, with notable additions in the percussion. As in Earnest, he refers to many different pieces and kinds of music, some in glancing allusions, some quoted in large set pieces. Some of those are obvious (Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”), some much less so (John Stainer’s anthem “God So Loved the World,” beloved by church veterans of a certain age). Some very particular sounds were also suggested; Barry found the sound for some the staccato singing the White Queen does in shaking a friend’s teddy bear, the kind that cries when you turn it over.
“I often use found material of some kind, but never because I want to write pastiche,” Barry says. “In fact, pastiche is exactly what I want to avoid. I want to make these familiar things seem absolutely unfamiliar.”
There is no overture or musical throat-clearing. Alice’s Adventures Under Ground hits the ground running – literally, in a staged production – as the White Rabbit shouts “I shall be too late.” Alice’s plummet down the rabbit hole is presented in two-octave arpeggios on the word “down,” like singing exercises. “The orchestra is a character,” Barry says. “Alice opens with what is almost a masterclass in singing, where the orchestra plays the part of the teacher, as if the teacher was sitting at the piano, playing some passages… and the student – at a very advanced stage – has to repeat them.” It starts in C major, the “whitest” of keys, and filling in two octaves C to C with broken chords and arpeggios becomes a recurrent motif.
At the bottom of her fall, Alice finds the bottle labeled “Drink me” and the cake labeled “Eat me,” which they press her to do in raucous quartets. Barry compresses much of several chapters into a few asides, to bring Alice to the Duchess’ kitchen, where she meets the Duchess and her baby, Cheshire Cat, and the cook flinging kitchenware, in manically galloping music stubbornly stuck over C. Barry gives the cook the Duchess’ lullaby parody, and a quartet of babies supplies the “Wow! Wow! Wow!” refrain, to the tune and harmony of “God So Loved the World,” a Victorian choral chestnut once beloved by church choirs. The scene dissolves with the Cheshire Cat’s prolonged fadeout, to a rough, scratchy orchestral interlude, all dotted rhythms and abrasive seconds and sevenths.
This leads into the the Mad Tea Party, with rapid fire delirium from the Mad Hatter and March Hare, and a low, blowsy interpolation from the Dormouse. The Hatter’s mounting hysteria leaves behind pitches and English, and runs directly into a garden where white roses are being painted red. At the end of a lengthy and ominous royal processional, the Queen of Hearts and company arrive.
Barry calls the next section “The Queen’s Piano and Croquet Masterclass” and instructs “Everything is done as in a storm, fighting the elements, declaiming like feverish circus masters, animal trainers, and frenetic auctioneers. The task is to marry piano techniques to croquet... Players are guillotined randomly.” This is like an extended elaboration of the opening, a bravura, multilingual, polyphonic vocalization of technical etude bits. The Cheshire Cat and Alice effect a segue to the Lobster Quadrille, which has the character of a metrically irregular two-part invention for the Mock Turtle and the Dormouse. Then the Mock Turtle’s song “Beautiful Soup” is reduced to just those two words and given to a quartet of the Mad Hatter, March Hare, Cheshire Cat, and King of Hearts, and sung in thunderous unison to the tune of “Danny Boy.”
Next comes “The Trial – Who Stole the Tarts?” The Queen mimes making the tarts to heavy staccato thumping of a dominant seventh chord, the witnesses are called, and Alice’s brief testimony dissolves in the attack of the cards that awakens her at the end of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Here it leads instead to “Jabberwocky,” from the opening scene of Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Barry sets it first as a “Rousing Rough Chorus” for the whole cast, to the tune of the World War I marching song “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” sung (like so much of Alice) at blazing speed – and in Russian. Without transition, the next scene is in the Garden of Live Flowers, with an ear-splitting (Barry’s marking) chorus of daisies screaming “Bough-wough!” Then the Red Queen shows Alice a countryside laid out like a chess board, which Alice examines during a trilling orchestral interlude, alluding to music quite unlike anything else in the opera. The Red Queen whirls her off, faster and faster, in a can-canish sort of gallop, and indicates the way forward for Alice, across the chess board to the eighth row, where she will become a queen.
First though, Barry reprises “Jabberwocky,” in French and then German. (This is an orchestration of a setting Barry made in 2012 for tenor, horn, and piano.) Alice’s train journey across the chess board is accomplished mostly orchestrally, sounding like a fractured music hall band, with more pungent seconds. Tweedledum and Tweedledee sing a truncated version of the song about the Walrus and the Carpenter (more tight seconds in the orchestra). Alice has her encounters with the White Queen and Humpty Dumpty, who begins the ballad with no end, “In winter, when the fields are white,” as a hushed solo to the tune of the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Then everybody bursts in on it deliriously, with the orchestra returning fortissimo to the music of its trilling interlude.
Afterwards, Alice meets the White King, and then the White Queen comes running across the country and flying through the woods to appropriate music, the flying done with the whole cast joining the orchestra in a wild unison section. The Red Knight and White Knight fight to a little limping waltz, and the victorious White Knight sings a crazed version of the “Haddock’s Eyes” song.
Barry interpolates the penultimate stanza of the Looking Glass prologue just before Alice reaches the eighth square, where she meets both the Red Queen and the White Queen. Alice strangles the Red Queen, and the four male voices close the opera, first with that verse from the prologue, then with a verse from the epilogue, as the orchestra fades out into a soft G-major chord in the strings. It is, as conductor Thomas Adès says, an ending that is very touching but not sentimental at all.
John Henken is Publications Editor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.