Unsuk Chin’s “out there” Alice in Wonderland opera in St. Louis

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (Ken Howard)

With only two performances left of a six-night show, Alice in Wonderland at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis seems to have been charming and challenging the critics in equal measure. “South Korean composer Unsuk Chin’s five-year-old Alice in Wonderland might be the most “out there” work I’ve seen in 22 years of coming here” says Scott Cantrell, classical music critic for the Dallas Morning News.

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (Ken Howard)

With prime episodes wittily adapted in a libretto by David Henry Hwang and Chin, the score matches Carroll for sheer weirdness and unpredictability — and humor. I was delighted for about an hour and a half of the nearly two-hour, no-intermission work, but found the end overly protracted.

Vocal lines often dart widely, although Alice sings a lullaby to the Duchess’ pig baby. There’s a fair bit of Sprechstimme, halfway between speech and singing, and the Duchess tosses off a streetwise rap. The Caterpillar “speaks” through an onstage, be-fezzed bass clarinetist, while the words of his exchange with Alice are merely projected on the walls. More (and some photos). . .

John von Rhein at the Chicago Tribune seemed to enjoy the evening:

Ashley Emerson made a spunky, engaging Alice, clear of voice and accurate of pitch, although her soprano sometimes failed to penetrate the thorny scoring. The Caterpillar was danced by choreographer Sean Curran and “sung” by bass clarinetist James Meyer, with members of the children’s chorus trailing behind as segments of the insect’s body. Tracy Dahl’s Cheshire Cat, David Trudgen’s White Rabbit, Matthew DiBattista’s Dormouse, Aubrey Allicock’s Mad Hatter, Julie Makerov’s Queen of Hearts and Jenni Bank’s Duchess also were standouts amid the large ensemble. Every one of them went at the blithe lunacy of their roles hammer and tongs. More. . .

The St. Louis performance is the U.S. premiere of Unsuk Chin’s work. At the world premiere in Munich in 2007 it received a decidedly mixed response, as one review recounted: “In the end, the audience divided violently. The lusty, loudly sustained boo’s seemed to overwhelm the less numerous but also sustained applause.” No such reports from the St. Louis show, just congratulations to a brave and talented ensemble.

The final performance will be on June 23rd at 8pm, at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, 210 Hazel Avenue St. Louis, MO.