Back when Kent Nagano was music director of Los Angeles Opera, the company commissioned a new piece based on Lewis Carroll's most famous tale from Unsuk Chin, a rising composer, born in Seoul and based in Berlin, whom Nagano had championed while he was chief conductor of that city's Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester. Engaged as librettist was David Henry Hwang, playwright of the Tony Award-winning M. Butterfly and author of the text for the Philip Glass operas 1000 Airplanes on the Roof and The Voyage. Chin won the 2004 Grawemeyer Award (worth $200,000) for her Violin Concerto, which Nagano had commissioned for the Berkeley Symphony, so her first opera, planned for the 2005-06 season (Nagano's last in Los Angeles), seemed very promising indeed.
Then L.A. Opera was hit by a budget crunch, and the company's administrators felt that, under the circumstances, two world premiere productions would be too risky and expensive for a single season. So Alice was postponed indefinitely in favor of the more commercially viable Grendel, conceived and staged by star director Julie Taymor and composed by her husband, Eliot Goldenthal. Meanwhile, Nagano went on to the Bavarian State Opera, where he just completed his first season as music director with last month's Munich Opera Festival — and he took Alice in Wonderland with him, using the new work for the festival's grand opening night.
Grendel did turn out to be a success in both Los Angeles and New York (despite that troublesome wall). However, observed Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed, "history could easily decide L.A. picked the wrong horse."
Many a hopeful individual milled about the square in front of the Nationaltheater before every sold-out performance of Alice, trying to score a spare ticket; inside the house, audiences applauded, cheered and stomped their feet at every curtain call.
"Credit must be given to Chin's fascinating score," wrote George Loomis for the International Herald Tribune, " ... she uses modernist vocabulary in a way that neatly, often wittily fits the subject matter ... But much of the writing is highly euphonious, even frankly tonal."
"Chin's sound world is seductively cavernous," said Alex Ross in The New Yorker, "suggesting not only the magical rabbit hole down which Alice tumbles but also the psychological crevasses beneath the surface of Carroll's writing. [...] The wondrous thing is how effortlessly Chin changes pace, from delicacy to grotesquerie, from cutesiness to dementia. Everything flows organically."
As Alan Rich put it in the L.A. Weekly, "This is the best Lewis Carroll since the movie of my childhood that had W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty."
In the title role, English soprano Sally Matthews headed a widely-praised cast that also included Dietrich Henschel (the Mad Hatter), Andrew Watts (the White Rabbit) and Guy de Mey (the Mouse). Gwyneth Jones — "who, at the age of 70, has lost remarkably little of her decibel capacity" (Ross) — was the Queen of Hearts, and Julia Rempe pulled off the Cheshire Cat on very short notice after Piia Komsi fell ill suddenly.
Opinions varied widely on the production by director Achim Freyer, who reportedly (in the finest Regieoper tradition) ignored most of Hwang's detailed stage directions. (Chin herself hinted to the German press that she was none too happy with Freyer's choices.)
Alice in Wonderland comes back to Munich for four performances in November. While the spokesman for Los Angeles Opera tells us that the company is "still committed" to Alice, no U.S. premiere has been scheduled there or elsewhere — yet.
* * * * * * * * *
All photos by Wilfried Hoesl.