Down the rabbit hole into the dark land of dreams
Opera Theatre of St. Louis took on a serious challenge in presenting Unsuk Chin’s and David Henry Hwang’s “Alice in Wonderland,” a two-hour-long one-act opera in English based on Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s 1865 novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Liberties, some egregious, were taken with the text of Dodgson’s enduring classic. Some, like the rap sequences, were amusing; others, such as the tarts trial, at the end of the show, were tedious and presented the scary notion of interminability.
Magnificent and original work by the lighting department brought luminous distinction to the production, and projected special effects reminded me of videos by Bruce Nauman and carried me back to Frank Corsaro’s realization of Frederick Delius’s “Fennimore and Gerda” for Opera Theatre here in St. Louis in 1981and at the Edinburgh Festival in 1983.
Because the production itself is imaginative and visually stimulating, and in recognition of the fact that the opera attempts to deal seriously with irrationality and the absurd, one feels compelled to blunt his criticism with praise for giving dramatic life to the fact that, increasingly, our lives are spent down one rabbit hole or another, and the threats of having our heads cut off by some malignant or insane tyrant are all too present.
However, before the show began, a wag declared we’d all have been better off eating the caterpillar’s magical mushrooms before the first note sounded. Another comment came from a serious and diligent opera lover. He said he found some individual performances and particular elements of stagecraft to be commendable within this “Alice,” but that the whole was less than the sum of its parts.
I agree, and will leave it at that.
Schedule for 'Alice'
When: 7 p.m. June 17; 8 p.m. June 15, 21, 23; 1 p.m. June 19
Where: Loretto-Hilton Theatre, Webster University
Tickets and schedule for all shows: http://www.opera-stl.org/
All of Opera Theatre’s serious productions have merit, so much merit it’s perfectly legitimate to overlook the producing of silly box office bonanzas such as “The Daughter of the Regiment” or that high-calorie chocolate factory opera. Regularly the company's repertory of serious works of art transcend life upon the stage, move out into the public arena and present much needed occasions for philosophical discussion or dissections of moral quandaries.
“The Death of Klinghoffer” last year was such an occasion, and the company’s stunning productions this year of Bizet’s “Carmen” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” carry extra-musical, extra-theatrical benefits. These productions are all the better, ascendant in fact, thanks to a willingness of the company’s artistic management to accentuate the sometimes subtle, but always compelling, complexities composers and librettists bring to their works of art. We, the audiences, are all the better for having seen them.
I’ve not attended the company’s production of “Cosi fan tutte” yet this year, but because its Enlightment investigations of human integrity and frailty are woven through itso clearly, it would be difficult to present a "Cosi" without some clear philosophical or psychological signals being telegraphed to a willing audience member.
“Alice” quite evidently has potential in the departments of philosophy and psychology, particularly the latter. The name of the book, “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,” telegraphs that this is no romantic or realist walk through the forest. It is a venture into the disjointed world of fantasies, of dreams, and thus brings to the reader, or to the listener, promise of a world enlivened by metaphor and symbol. It is a wonder-land after all, a world of wonders – strange, bizarre, fascinating and frightening. Alice falls asleep to access Wonderland, which is a world of dreams.
It’s interesting to fantasize about what might have happened had Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) and Sigmund Freud been brought together. Instead, they were ships passing in the night in the dark and turbulent waters of 19th century Europe. Although separated by time and geography, their concerns and interests were similar, and my guess is they would have been compatible pilgrims on the road to human psychological investigations.
Freud’s epochal work in mapping human personality established psychoanalysis, Despite all attempts to shoot down the so called talking-cure treatment, based on psychoanalytic principles, it endures as the treatment of choice for those interested in discovering the causes of psychic distress, rather than putting chemical Band-Aids on the symptoms.
In 1899, Freud published “The Interpretation of Dreams,” a theoretical textbook book that is a classic, and should be required reading for any satisfactorily educated person.
Lewis Carroll, who died in 1898 before Freud’s book was published, was a polymath and certifiable eccentric. He was ordained to the diaconate of Church of England, then a prerequisite for teaching mathematics at Christ Church College, Oxford. He died having seen his novels achieve quite astonishing and enduring successes. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” was published in 1865 and has never gone out of print. It and its companion, “Through the Looking Glass,” are often positioned as innocent fantasies that appeal to children and grownups alike. I find that almost impossible to believe.
Clearly, Carroll was fascinated by dreams, perhaps not to the degree Freud was, but fascinated nevertheless, and certainly interested in uncovering the cloaked content of them. Freud called dreams the royal road to the unconscious, and once at that destination, analyst and analysand could begin to work toward discovering the causes of discomfort and treating the symptoms these causes present.
Carroll’s idea of accessing dreams was not down a royal road but a descent down a rabbit hole. There, in Wonderland -- the dreamland Freud called the unconscious -- fears, excesses, irrationalities, absurdities, and intimations of death become apparent. All too often the Queen cries, “Off with their heads,” and those heads are death sentences for us, delivered by a slave to the irrational.
Dreams, interpreted this way, are anything but happy. Thus a message one can take home from “Alice,” no matter what he or she thinks of the show, is this: Genuinely revelatory dreams are anything but pretty.
Carroll’s notion -- “Life, what is it but a dream?” -- is dark and frightening, and it is a condition that we all should try to counter and from which we must seek to escape.