By Helen Chatterton
Following the success of Durham Opera Ensemble’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Alice in Wonderland is an operatic performance of extremely high quality, featuring many hugely talented artists. Written by Will Todd and Maggie Gottlieb, the production follows the Alice we all recognise from childhood, through her encounters with equally familiar characters. The lyrics are in equal parts intelligent and funny, and feature Durham-specific adaptations which combined to create a compelling story.
Director Alabama Jackson draws attention to the fact that it is ‘essentially an opera aimed at children,’ which is in part what guarantees its success. Whilst slick and professional, the opera was by no means pretentious and was accessible even to the least experienced opera viewer. Rightly or wrongly, opera has come to carry some negative connotations, such as being incomprehensible and uptight. DOE’s production is a far cry from such, and any apprehensions you may have towards attending are unfounded.
What is immediately striking about the performance is its setting. St John’s College Library Lawn, adorned with bunting, hay bales and paper lanterns, creates a quintessential English tea party, which in turn tied in well with the plot itself. The roped-off aisle was frequently used as an entrance point, with characters utilising such to engage with the audience.
Nevertheless, the open-air venue presented its own set of challenges. These were largely out of anybody’s control, with the frequent interruptions of the Cathedral bells inevitable, and the slightly adverse weather unavoidable. The location also meant that no microphones were used. This was slightly to its detriment, as whilst the orchestra accompanied the pieces beautifully, and the majority of the vocalists could be heard, there were occasions when soloists were hard to hear.
Credit must go to Lydia Marshall playing Alice, who sang and performed beautifully, and carried off the principal role extremely well. Particularly impressive vocal performances were also given by Hannah Cox as the Duchess and Catherine Bench as the Mad Hatter, who flourished both as soloists and in their duet. Hannah Ambrose, as Bottle, also stood out for her vocal trills, but at times actual lyrics were hard to discern.
Ashleigh Charlton and Rosie Burgering made for a very fun pairing as the Tweedles and as the Brats. Their constant squabbling carried across in both roles, and they often pulled the eye in group scenes. The bubble pipe blowing caterpillar (Jeremy Cowen) should also be commended for his comedic role, especially in his attempts to hide behind a twig, and his embodiment of lethargy was uncanny.
One of the clear standouts of the production came in the form of group numbers. The extended rehearsal period has paid dividends, with cast harmonisation being a credit to the musical director Josh Ridley. Similarly, the entire cast should be praised for their constant dedication to characterization.
The choreography lent itself well to the hyperbolic tone of the opera, with skipping and twirling common occurrences. It could be said that it was simple, but this, in turn, highlighted the strength of the vocals. In one particular scene, it was uncertain whether the cast was supposed to be moving as one, and the Quartet, whilst vocally powerful, were sometimes out of synchronisation in movement.
Throughout the production, there were a few costume mishaps. Alice lost her belt within the first few minutes, and her hair ribbon was to later follow suit. The eccentricities of the Cheshire Cat (played by James MacTavish) were slightly hampered by the constant falling down of his trousers. These are issues which will surely be resolved for subsequent performances.
However, to find fault with the production is to ‘nit-pick.’ Alice in Wonderland is presented by an extremely talented cast and production team. It is sure to challenge any misconceptions you may have about the opera genre. Grab some friends, a picnic blanket, and head to St John’s for a drink or two in the company of some fine entertainment. DOE will not disappoint.
‘Alice in Wonderland’ will be performed on the St Johns College Library Lawn from Thursday, 15th of June until Saturday, 17th of June at 18:30. Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Alex McNab