The Haydn Foundation 2021 Review: Alice

Matteo Franceschini’s High-Octane Romp Through Wonderland Does Not Quite Hit The Mark

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Roberto Ricci)

“Alice in Wonderland,” Lewis Carroll’s novel which has entertained children down the generations is a multi-layered work, which has lent itself to a variety of interpretations over the years, in which commentators from many disciplines have looked beyond the colorful narrative, to reveal its symbolic references, satirical portraits, psychological depths, and its mathematical and linguistic conceits. Such is its popularity that even people who have never read it, or seen a staged or filmed adaptation, know the names of many of its characters; who has not heard of the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, or the Cheshire Cat? Not surprisingly, therefore, it has also attracted the attention of composers eager to set the story to music, the latest of which is the Italian Matteo Franceschini.

A Modern Day Alice

Along with his librettist Edouard Signolet, Franceschini decided to present Alice as a modern day adolescent, lively and confident with a strong belief in her own ideas; she is ready for adventure, ready to confront the world! Falling asleep into a dreamworld, Alice finds herself in the middle of a nightmare, peopled by unpleasant characters in which reason and illusion, reality and fantasy exist side by side. She has embarked on a journey of discovery.

An Accomplished Score

Using an orchestra of 18 instruments, Franceschini created a dense sound world that reflected Alice’s confusion and anxiety, but one that also captured the impatient energy and restlessness of an adolescent. There were many discordant passages, which were difficult and unsettling, but which would slip with apparent ease into more accommodating styles, such as jazz, Broadway musicals, and dance, which he allied to specific characters. He also employed sounds of nature, such as a bird song and used extensive musical quotations from a variety of sources, including the British national anthem. It is, without doubt, a cleverly constructed score with interesting intertwining textures and coloring. Importantly, it is also neatly aligned to the on stage drama, with its mixture of styles amplifying the anarchic tale. Yet, its fast changing nature, in which the pace is very rarely allowed to drop, was at times emotionally draining; areas of calm or reflection were rare and when they occurred, arrive like welcome oases in a desert. In a very real sense, Franceschini has drawn an accurate portrait of a modern day teenager, who is thrown into a series of unknown and confrontational situations.

A High-octane Presentation

For this presentation by The Haydn Foundation, the director Caroline Leboutte, assisted by scenery and costume designer Aurélie Borremans and lighting engineer Nicolas Olivier, responded successfully to the episodic nature of the work. Each scene was given its own distinct character, which imaginatively relayed the drama, although certain scenes did stand out. Particularly impressive was the scene with the Mock Turtle which using only a white rippling sheet as a backcloth and a dark colored costume for the singer actually came across as a talking mock turtle standing on two legs with a well-defined personality, thanks to Laboutte’s clever directing.

Apart from Alice, each singer was cast in numerous parts. At no point, however, did the roles become blurred, such was the strength of her directing, in which each character was clearly defined and costumed.

The directing worked hand in glove with the music to the extent that it too was a high-energy and fast-paced production. Where there existed an opportunity for movement, full advantage was taken; the cast rarely had an opportunity to rest. Frequent costume changes owing to them all performing multiple roles added to the non-stop onstage activity, and with plenty of screaming and shouting thrown in for good measure, it too became emotionally tiring. Between the music and the staging, there was simply too much going on, without the necessary periods for the audience to reflect or to relax.

A Hard Working Vocal Ensemble

Such was the constant interaction between the singers that it would be more accurate to talk about them as an ensemble who worked very closely together. Obviously, Alice is the primary role, around which the other characters rotate, but as the other singers are multi-parted, they have an equal level of involvement. Their interaction was not always as a character involved in the drama; sometimes they acted as narrators, commenting on the events or on Alice herself. Occasionally, their interactions were harmonious, but more often they were confrontational or full of friction.

Alice was played by soprano Giulia Bolcato. She gave a committed and confident performance and fully convinced as Alice as a modern day teenager. Vocally, she was put to the test by what is a demanding role, and came through impressively. Lyrical passages were pleasingly delivered, but she was equally secure when pushing into the upper register, the voice remaining strong and appealing throughout. She was also required to scream and shout while being continually on the move. Different musical styles were taken in her stride. Bolcato’s distinctive strong stage presence and personality aided her in producing a successful presentation, which was both expressive and emotionally realistic.

Mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bernini who essayed the roles of the Mock turtle, the Cook, the March Hare, the Queen, and Narrator 3 had an equally strong stage presence and gave convincing performances in all her roles, but particularly impressed as the Queen, which she portrayed as an egotistical vamp and dressed accordingly. She has a lively and resonant voice with a colorful pallet, that incorporates interesting darker shades. However, it was the degree of expressivity which she is able to generate and which allowed her to clearly differentiate and fill out her characters that caught the attention.

Ugo Tarquini played the roles of the White Rabbit, the Pig, a Lacky, the Dormouse, and Narrator 2, in which he acted out the parts energetically and with distinction. His interpretation of the White Rabbit with a stutter was neatly crafted and very enjoyable. Vocally, he possesses a flexible, attractive tenor.

Alice’s Older Sister, a Lacky, the Caterpillar, the Mad Hatter, and Narrator 1 were played by soprano Laura Catrani. Her performance was lively and spirited in which she fully engaged with her characters, clothing them with depth and humor.

Baritone Matteo Mollica was parted as the Duchess, the Cheshire Cat, the King, and Narrator 4. He produced a series of expressive portraits which brought his characters convincingly to life, particularly in the case of the role of the Duchess, in which he displayed a natural comedic flair. He possesses an appealing voice, but on occasions needed stronger projection to overcome the orchestra.

The Orchestra Haydn di Bolzano e Trento gave an energetic, precise performance under the direction of Rossen Gergov in which it moved between musical styles with apparent ease, and brought a rhythmic dash to the jazz and dance sections. The score’s interesting textures and coloring were clearly and successfully uncovered. There were plenty of opportunities for individual sections and players to make an impression, in which the role of the wind section was particularly notable. Rossen kept the stage and pit in tandem, which with all the onstage movement combined with fast changing music was no easy task.

The Sum was Less than the Parts

Ultimately, this production by the “Haydn Foundation” was a case of the outcome being less than the sum of its parts. Everything about it was skillfully done, but when brought together it was simply too concentrated, its pace unrelenting and, despite the inclusion of humorous incidents, too intense. It needed more space for the drama to breathe. Interestingly at its world premiere in Paris in 2016, it was produced on a far grander scale, with a larger orchestra and importantly a large children’s chorus, something which certainly would have had the potential to open up the drama, and what was possibly the missing element in this presentation.



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