On With Their Heads! 

Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland

Wednesday, Jul 18 2007

Hope Remains

The grandiose pillared portico of Munich’s National Theater — built in 1825, gutted by our boys in 1943, reopened in 1963 — bespeaks a city that honors and is honored by its opera. Tristan and Die Meistersinger had their premieres there; the shadows of the Richards, Wagner and Strauss, linger at the podium. New operas remain the tradition, even in this city of dark streets and terrible, dark food. So does the tradition of greeting new operas with “storms of booing” (as one critic reported on Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland last week) and then taking later performances to heart. Old European theaters are built with resonant wood floors, even more so than Disney Hall, and a responsive crowd — like the one around me at the third performance of Alice — can stomp out a fair imitation of several thousand timpani, fortissimo. So it was.

Unsuk Chin, 45, born in South Korea, now living in Berlin, is a wondrously versatile composer. Her Violin Concerto, which Kent Nagano brought out with his Berkeley Symphony two seasons ago, is complex and fiendishly difficult to play and to hear. It also happens to be the first truly great work of this millennium. Many of her chamber works have turned up here on “Green Umbrella” concerts; they are easier of access, and some are actually fun. Alice bestrides the broad range of her musical manners. David Henry Hwang’s libretto — in English, and produced in Munich with German supertitles — actually takes in quite a lot of Lewis Carroll’s proto–sci-fi fable, with the twist of enclosing it all in a dream sequence. Achim Freyer both designed and directed, and under both hats he has gone off like a sozzled skyrocket from the libretto’s suggestions. In press interviews, Ms. Chin has intimated that Freyer’s madcap designs have gone too far from her own visions of the Alice story. “Far” they certainly have gone; “too far” I would challenge. This is the best Lewis Carroll since the movie of my childhood that had W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty.

click to enlarge The Queen (and King) of Hearts, at luncheon in Mnchen
  • The Queen (and King) of Hearts, at luncheon in Mnchen

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On a stage raked at close to a 45-degree angle, Freyer’s Wonderland characters poke their way out of holes, creating a hilarious geometry. An undulating green line turns into a clarinet-playing Caterpillar. A line of urchins wearing soup pots bang upon them in obeisance to a single can of Campbell’s (Mock) Turtle Soup. Most of the characters are masked in some way; only the venerable Gwyneth Jones as the Queen of Hearts, stentorian as ever, comes on in full blush. The composer salutes her presence in the opera with a sly quotation from Turandot, one of Jones’ signature roles. A ballet of gadgetry — disconnected arms and legs, an enormously distended Cheshire Cat, distorted face masks for Alice and her White Rabbit pal — keeps the stage in constant motion.

There is music to match — music, that is, full of stylistic twitches that seem to touch breathlessly on an evocation of Baroque here, a jazzy blast there. Percussion dominates, with additional performers on side stages to complement the huge ensemble down front. Musical events, like the events onstage, whiz by with wondrous speed. Most of the singing takes place offstage, or through masks; only Sally Matthews, in a virtuosic stint as Alice, and Jones as the Queen actually perform onstage, companioned by Freyer’s marvelous array of puppets, marionettes and humanoids of all shapes and sizes.

Nagano conducted. He has for some time been an active advocate for Chin’s music. Two years ago, while still music director of the Los Angeles Opera, he had Alice placed on the agenda here, and there were excerpts played, as a sort of teaser, at the Ojai Festival. Then Nagano departed to become Generalmusikdirektor at the Bayerische Staatsoper; instead of Alice, we got Grendel. A spokesman for the L.A. Opera told me last week that the company is “still committed” to Alice; his boss, Mr. Domingo, stands by the somewhat weaker statement that there is “still hope.” With the company’s ongoing relationship with the great Freyer — The Damnation of Faust in the past, The Ring to come — and with the triumph of Alice still resounding, it strikes me as pure damfoolery not to take the obvious next step.

Bill’s Double Bill

Talk about Grendel: There was another chunk of biz on the Munich stage that put that sorry affair’s infamous Wall to shame. It happened in Salome, when Alan Titus as John the Baptist, not merely rising from his prison cell as a single menacing personage, arose embedded in a huge Gibraltar-like structure, marvelously fetid and menacing, all the more so on a set that was otherwise all squares and straight lines. Hollywood’s own William Friedkin was the director, and the Salome — svelte, blond, insinuating, overpowering — was Angela Denoke; write down her name and remember it. Preceding the Salome was Wolfgang Rihm’s Das Gehege, a dark and cynical monodrama involving a woman (Gabriele Schnaut) who frees a caged eagle, challenges the bird to seduce her and stabs him as he approaches. As with his superb Bartók-Puccini double bill at the L.A. Opera in 2002, Friedkin came up with a way of subtly linking the two works: The same actor (Todd Ford), in the same angel-of-death getup, was cast in the mute roles as the Eagle in the Rihm and the Executioner in Salome, and Friedkin’s program note, in Leberwurst-dense German far over my head, explained their relationship.

Talk about folks from home: On my last night, the program was billed both as Wagner-Gala — meaning dress to the nines — and Oper für Alle — meaning come as you are. I chose the latter, although it actually referred to a huge video installation out in the Platz, where thousands more assembled under misty but not quite rainy skies. Inside, our own Plácido Domingo was Siegmund to Waltraud Meier’s Sieglinde in the first act of Die Walküre, with the fabulous bass René Pape, whom I hadn’t heard before, as Hunding. On his own, Pape sang King Marke’s lament from Tristan; the dressy crowd applauded happily, and the cheers from the happy Wagnerites outside filtered in through that grand portico. Someone who knows these things tells me that this was the hottest ticket of the entire European opera season . . . and me without a necktie!

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