Alice's Adventures Under Ground

Gerald Barry after Lewis Carroll
Irish National Opera
Wexford Festival from ROH online

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Jennifer France and Carole Wilson Credit: Clive Barda
Peter Tantsits as the March Hare Credit: Clive Barda
The white rabbit and company Credit: Clive Barda

It’s bonkers, it’s wild, it’s madness in a mincer. It’s a crazier, dizzier succession of outrageous costumes and images than one could imagine. It’s 55 minutes of mindless joy.

Gerald Barry’s madcap opera is a randomly assembled mash-up of stories from both Alice books, starting with that fall down a rabbit hole. "Down, down, down, down..." sings Claudia Boyle in an astonishing sequence of arpeggios that include just the first of what are to be her 98 top Cs.

No wonder she’s immediately tempted by those four chaps in bottles saying "Drink me." We’ll soon see them again, as 'Eat-me' cakes, babies, oysters and flowers, as one brilliantly conceived and hilarious scene follows another almost every minute.

Incidents crowd upon each other in Antony McDonald’s production—the Mad Hatter’s tea party, the slaying of the Jabberwock, a pantomime battle of knights on horseback. After Alan Ewing’s egg-on-face Humpty Dumpty sings a melancholy "Ode to Joy", conductor André de Ridder holds back the Irish Chamber Orchestra, letting Humpty’s sadness hang, then lets rip with one of Barry’s frenetic outbursts of edgy brass, whistles and percussion.

Boyle flies through the stratosphere, joined occasionally by Clare Presland and Hilary Summers as the red and white queens; Gavan Ring and Peter Tantsits are manically March mad as the Hatter and Hare, and Stephen Richardson as the White Knight gallops like one escaped from Monty Python’s stable. And all of them double or whatever is the world for ten-times in other roles. A duplicate cast is headed by Jennifer France.

The text is a mixture of Lewis Carroll, nonsense verse and nursery rhyme fragments rendered in English, French, German, Latin and Russian. The music, although atonal, is thrilling and easy to follow. The set is often framed within a Victorian toy theatre.

Story—there isn’t one. Anarchy reigns. So call me an anarchist.

The production by Irish National Opera, available on the ROH web site until 5 December, was filmed at Wexford Festival in 2020. The same production continues at Covent Garden until 9 February.

Reviewer: Colin Davison