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  • Chris O'Rourke

Alice's Adventures Under Ground

Clare Presland and Claudia Boyle in Alice's Adventures Under Ground. Image by Padraig Grant.


Like many during Covid, Irish National Opera fashioned lemonade out of bitter lemons. Not only salvaging an impressive number of projects, but often breaking new ground to do so. None more so than Alice's Adventures Under Ground. Featuring music and libretto by Gerald Barry, inspired by Lewis Carroll's iconic Alice novels, a frenetic, madcap energy informs INO's fifty minute opera film available online from November 5. Which also provides the score for INO's first ever CD recording issued the same day. Yet if the opera is an absurdist delight, the film proves a bittersweet affair.

Produced in 2020 by INO's partners on this ambitious project, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, that INO's planned production at the Gaiety didn't go ahead only adds to the bitterness, leaving you longing for the sweetness that might have been. Like INO's marvellous La Cenerentola, Alice's Adventures Under Ground looks a breathtaking spectacle best witnessed live, awash with powerful singing set against mesmerising theatrical ingenuity. Filmed at National Opera House, Wexford, with audio recorded at University Concert Hall, Limerick, it all looks and sounds that little bit delicious.

Gavin Ring in Alice's Adventures Under Ground. Image by Padraig Grant.

Yet not everything translates successfully to the screen. If director, Hugh O'Connor, facilitated some marvellous short form pieces in 20 Shots of Opera, Alice's Adventures Under Ground can suffer too many good intentions. Honourably trying to honour Antony McDonald's sumptuous, if cramped set, suggestive of a Victorian toy theatre with sliding panels, O'Connor's occasionally staid camera often further narrows the frame, like a claustrophobic slide viewer. Even as he captures movement and mood with quiet confidence, while proving masterful with light. Yet singing looking lip synced can puncture the screened experience of its vivacity. Which no amount of impressive high C's quite compensate for, even if the recording does sounds amazing.

Throughout, whether falling down holes, riding trains, or conversing with queens Claudia Boyle is impossible to take your eyes or ears off. Boyle's eyes and face, like her exquisite voice, glow with an expressiveness that's to die for, and which the camera simply adores. As it does the rest of the impressive cast, including a divine Clare Presland, Hilary Summers, Gavan Ring, Peter Tantsits, Stephen Richardson and Alan Ewing, along with dancers Stephanie Dufresne, Niamh O'Flannagain and Nathan Cornwell. And, of course, McDonald's brain breaking designs.

Claudia Boyle in Alice's Adventures Under Ground. Image by Padraig Grant.

With a Monty Python, Keystone Cops freneticism, Barry's energetic score, wonderfully performed by Irish Chamber Orchestra conducted by André de Ridder, inventively plays with musical phrases, humorously references well known works, and swirls with orchestral joy. Yet close your eyes, and the energy and pace minus the visuals suggests a brave, if curious choice for INO's inaugural CD. Especially for those who prefer their operas less jarring. Or their librettos to have structure and sense. Even devotees of Alice might find Barry's impressionistic mishmash something of a struggle, depending how rusty or well versed they are in Carroll's much loved novels.

Claudia Boyle in Alice's Adventures Under Ground. Image by Padraig Grant

If INO's dazzling performance suggests an operatic tour de force, their cinematic 'other thing' isn't always a comparable experience. Even so, it's wild, uninhibited nonsense proves rather infectious. If Alice's Adventures Under Ground won't make everyone's Christmas list, those who prefer opera with energy and craziness, with little rhyme or reason, and with a fair sprinkling of charm will find much to enjoy. Especially given that the music is mesmerising, the theatricality jaw dropping, and the singing divine.

Alice's Adventures Under Ground, music and libretto by Gerald Barry, presented by Irish National Opera and Royal Opera House, Covent Garden is available online from Nov 5 to Dec 4.

For further information, or to view, visit Irish National Opera or Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.


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