After three seasons of Tobias Picker’s Fantastic Mr Fox, Opera Holland Park rings the changes for its family opera this year, simultaneously commissioning the company’s first-ever entirely new work. To a libretto by Maggie Gottlieb, Will Todd’s Alice opera is loosely based on Lewis Carroll’s hardy perennial of children’s literature rather than being a straightforward transfer of book into opera; but enough of the iconic characters and events are here for audience members to get a handle on what is happening.
Fflur Wyn in Aliceâ€™s Adventures in Wonderland Photo: Michael Volpe
They do so out of doors in this alfresco staging on the Yucca Lawn behind the theatre in the park where the main stage opera programme plays. Each scene in Leslie Travers’ easy-on-the-eye designs is set up in a different corner, with the audience moving around in between, shepherded on their way by members of the cast. The result is easy to follow in both senses.
In Gottlieb’s version, Alice is a contemporary girl from Grimthorpe whose eventful adventures begin and end in a pet shop where she has a strange conversation with the White Rabbit. Then her dream (or is it a dream?) begins, and Carroll’s creations pop up and sing before us. Famous episodes such as the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and meetings with the Caterpillar, Humpty Dumpty and both Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee all evoke familiar territory. The show climaxes in a reappearance of Robert Burt’s properly terrifying Red Queen, whose Off With Their Heads! number provides one of several moments that arouse spontaneous applause. Martin Duncan’s simple staging is admirably clear, and a surprisingly high ratio of the text comes over from a cast that is obviously determined to be audible.
Todd’s music will present no problems to audiences of whatever level of sophistication. Perhaps best known for his anthem The Call of Wisdom, which was sung at the Queen’s jubilee service in St Paul’s Cathedral last year, 43-year-old Todd is a versatile composer whose stage works in various genres always possess immediacy and dramatic grasp. Although this particular work spends more of its musical time in the area of Shaftesbury Avenue than it does in Covent Garden, the resulting all-sung blend of jazzy rhythms, musical and even vaudeville makes light work of Carroll and his creations. Stuart Stratford conducts an ensemble of 11 players, who move around the open air venue just like the other performers and the audience.
Opera Holland Park has gone for a high-quality cast, several of them regulars at this venue in full-scale operatic productions. Both charming and knowing as Alice, Fflur Wyn leads the team appealingly and skilfully. Burt steals his scenes as an alarming Red Queen but without actually scaring the kids away. James Cleverton is the benign White Rabbit, Keel Watson the vocally and physically grand Caterpillar and John Lofthouse a touchingly lugubrious White Knight, while Clare Hendrick and Elaine Tate make an unusually noticeable pair as Tweedles Dum and Dee respectively.