I was excited about this project, I really was. Not knowing quite what to expect of course, but the prospect of transmuting Lewis Carroll’s much-beloved sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into a new opera was highly intriguing, to say the least. The pedigree of those involved is also impressive, composed by Alan John with libretto by prolific adaptor Andrew Upton, commissioned by the Victorian Opera and the Malthouse Theatre in association with Opera Australia. So naturally I felt there was some good cause to be optimistic that an exciting evening lay ahead.
How disappointing then that I found the result not only unengaging, but actually boring, which is a rather dire indictment of a piece less than an hour and a half long and based on extremely appealing material. Simply put, this new opera just didn’t work for me at all.
Why it failed to engage is the real question. Some specific reasons spring to mind. To begin with, the production design (by the acclaimed Peter Corrigan no less) was aesthetically unappealing to the point of ugliness. Not even interesting ugliness. I’m no die-hard traditionalist, mind you – I don’t require an adaptation of Alice to ape the illustrations of Tenniel or even necessarily have a Victorian aesthetic. This empty, sterile set with its grid design on hard, flat surfaces, digital projections, concealed doors and the occasional use of mirrored flats and small wheeled rostra was about as far away from an enchanting world of proto-Surrealist fantasy as possible. In fact, it reminded me of nothing so much as a late-‘80s music video. I have no objection to comparative minimalism if it is intended as an aide to freeing the imagination, but in this case even a simple “black box” would have been less jarring.
The costuming was little better, with the extensive doubling (again, not something I’d object to if done with flair) not particularly well signalled and the outfits, much like the set, not especially evocative of anything in particular. Indeed, perhaps the only appealing aspect of the stagecraft and design was the use of puppets for Humpty Dumpty, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and the occasional projections of chessboard squares onto the otherwise dreary set.
However even a drastic aesthetic miscalculation should not be enough to derail an engaging piece of work, and I wish I could say that Through the Looking Glass rose to this challenge. The dramatisation of the familiar narrative in operatic form failed to provide any particular thrills of imagination or humour, generate any moving human drama or even to warm any cockles. John’s music did not excite or inspire, nor did Upton’s libretto seem to either express successfully the whimsical genius of Carroll’s absurdism or impart a particularly engaging spin of his own. As to the main dramatic innovation of the adaptation, its treatment of Alice herself, the results were again far from appealing.
Requiring an adult performer for the role of Alice may have been as much an unavoidable necessity as a creative brainwave, but given the thematic function it serves one can’t say which came first. At any rate, there is no attempt to disguise the womanly Dimity Shepherd as a child. The concept, evidently, is that Shepherd represents a now adult incarnation of the real life Alice Liddell, (the young girl for whom Charles Dodgson, using the nom de plume of Lewis Carroll, wrote the Alice books as gifts), who is both re-living the adventures of her fictionalised self as well as confronting the author in a framing sequence.
In addition to this older Alice acting young within the story, three girls (in slightly fetishistic costumes that perhaps recall Gwen Stefani’s Japanese-inspired Alice-themed video clip – if so a rather clumsy reference) act as a kind of chorus, interacting with Alice but apparently also representing her as a child. The device doesn’t work very effectively.
This all comes to a kind of unsatisfactory fruition when the actual narrative of Looking Glass winds down and we have a confrontation between Alice and Carroll. Intended, it would seem, as a comment on Carroll’s need to “capture” Liddell both imaginatively in his writing and visually in his photography, to keep her (or his ideal of her) static for all time as though preserved in amber. Thus we become primarily concerned with Alice’s attempt to assert and distinguish her own adult persona from the fictional, childish one with which she has become inexorably linked. Although this portrayal didn’t go fully into the sinister connotations that some modern biographers have attributed to the shutterbug author, the concluding segment of this opera certainly portrays this relationship of muse and artist as problematic.
Ultimately, I feel that John and Upton’s Through the Looking Glass is an unfortunately failed venture. Perhaps with drastic reworking it could be something special, as the essential premise is undeniably a good one. In its current form, however, it is sadly disappointing.
Victorian Opera and Malthouse Theatre presents
Through The Looking Glass
Venue: Merlyn Theatre at the CUB Malthouse
Previews: 7:30pm Sat May 17 and 5pm Sun 18
Season: 7:30pm Tues May 20, 6:30pm Wed 21, 7:30pm Thur 22, Fri 23 and Sat 24, 5pm Sun 25, 6:30pm Tues 27 and Wed 28, 1:30pm Thur 29, 7:30pm Fri 30 and Sat 31
Running time: 90 mins
Tickets: $20-$49 + booking fee
Bookings: Malthouse Box Office (03) 9685 5111 or www.malthousetheatre.com.au or Ticketmaster 1300 723 038
Sung in English
Commissioned by Victorian Opera and Malthouse Theatre in association with Opera Australia.