Alice’s Adventures Under Ground (Irish National Opera, Irish Chamber Orchestra, André de Ridder)
Gerald Barry’s riot Alice’s Adventures Underground treats the timeless story to surreal levels of tart cartoonish absurdity that even Lewis Carroll might have balked at. Dressed in a luminous neon kaleidoscope of colors that sparkle and spit with fireworks brightness and dramatic sensibility whose anarchic appropriation and morphing of lyrical conventions seem positively hallucinogenic, this is the closest, I’d bet, that most listeners will come to an LSD trip.
There is something expressed at a glance and in a more grotesque way in the sonic universe of Alban Berg’s work. Wozzeck on Barry’s treatment of Carroll’s fantastic fable. A splash, too, of Thomas Adès at its most comically disruptive. The result, characteristic of Barry, is individual, idiosyncratic, and – in his own distinctive words – extremely pleasing.
First staged at the Royal Opera House in London in 2020, her canceled Covid debut in Barry’s native Ireland sparked this recording, released concurrently with a staged production filmed at the National Opera House in Wexford for a online consumption worth researching.
This audio release, augmented by fine notes on the Alice phenomenon by Carroll biographer Jenny Woolf and on the opera by Toby Young, marks the promising start of a new relationship between Signum Classics and the Irish National Opera. Formed in 2018, under the direction of artistic director Fergus Sheil and executive director Diego Fasciati, INO has transformed the opera offering in Ireland with a smart and entertaining blend of core repertoire (Bohemian will be released on Signum in spring 2022), forgotten classics (Robert O’Dwyer’s Irish-language Eithne published on RTÉ lyric fm in 2019), and new works.
Much of the success here is due to the Irish Chamber Orchestra, which performs with raucous conviction under the nimble and sharp direction of André de Ridder. They create a web of chaotic eccentricity in which the seven singers have no choice but to go with the often. frantic flow.
Claudia Boyle’s fiery and endearing Alice takes on Barry’s hyperventilated and amphetamine-driven coloratura challenges with athletic aplomb. A performance of startling dexterity, his skillfully graduated vocal gymnastics provide a solid center – no small feat – to the constantly excitable whirlwind of debate.
There is strong support in the multi-actor roles of Stephen King’s mischievous Cheshire Cat, Gavin Ring’s baffled White Rabbit, Mad Hatter and Tweedledum to Peter Tantsits’ Tweedledee, who doubles as a delightfully unofficial Mad Hare. .
Hilary Summers, Clare Presland, Stephen Richardson, and Alan Ewing provide their own equally vivid contributions, all at the same time being one with Barry’s cheerfully provocative penchant for plundering the popular and the deep. Witness the double iterations of Jabberwocky in exciting French and lively Russian, the latter referring with intoxication to the norm of the First World War, It’s a long way to Tipperary. Or Humpty Dumpty’s desperate loan from Beethoven Ode to Joy which is overwhelmed by a veritable tsunami of echoing voices and instruments.
After the sonic storm and narcotic maelstrom emerges an ending shrouded in a chorale-like calm and serenity – a scholarly coda for a tale before falling asleep that slowly falls into an exhausted slumber.
Like his previous Oscar Wilde treatment The importance of being serious suggested, Barry is his best librettist. The dual role frees him as a composer to go beyond what others might consider achievable let alone make sense. The result both attacks and delights the ears.
Composer: Gerald Barry
Job: Alice’s Adventures Underground
Interpreters: Soloists, Irish National Opera, Irish Chamber Orchestra, André de Ridder
Label: Signum Classics SIGCD695