Camera Moves, Cabbages and Kings

After a sour first impression of Korean composer Unsuk Chin’s operatic version of Alice in Wonderland on DVD, I decided to give it a second look. I’m glad I did because most of my gripes seemed less evident on a subsequent viewing.
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From the start, I did appreciate the look and staging of the production itself. The set design, puppetry, costuming and scene changes are breathtaking in their execution. When an enormous Alice happens upon Rabbit’s home, her huge arms unfurl across the length of the stage. At one point, the set becomes an enormous clock with Alice as the focal point, the silvery gloves of actors forming the Roman numerals.

In fact, my main critique remains the over-busy camera work, which pushes in tight when it should be in a wide shot and is off on an adventure when it should be front and center. The action takes place on a slanted stage, with characters appearing and vanishing from its surface, Alice never budging much from her starting point. This is actually, I think, quite in the spirit of the original, where Alice doesn’t seem as though she’s on a journey at all, rather the landscape appears to shift and move around her.
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I also had some concerns with the darker themes of sexuality explored in the opera, particularly a subtext of sexual abuse that bookends the libretto. I simply didn’t believe that the original could bear the weight of the imposition of more serious concerns on what is, after all, a collection of wonderful nonsense. Compare for example the satisfyingly daffy logic of a comment like:

“If there’s no meaning in it, that saves a world of trouble, as we need not try to find any!”

With Alice’s lament from the end of the play:

“The earth is dead, barren, no beauty, no value, no flower seeds here.”

The libretto absorbs the original into a new context, with the well known and well loved episodes from Carroll’s work becoming something less frivolous and fun, an escape from reality or rather a submersion of reality into a world where illogic and lack of understanding rule the day, because the harsh truth is too much to bear. Watching the opera a second time, the idea is no less disturbing, but it seems less like something simply tacked on. The change in language felt necessary rather than a failure to mimic Carroll’s witty writing.
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So my feelings have softened somewhat but I still feel appreciation of the production is harmed to a great degree by the camera work. Amongst the irritations I jotted down in my notebook while viewing: “pans to nowhere,” “reaction shot after reaction shot of masks without revealing what they are reacting to,” “obsession with the actresses’ hands (which admittedly are indeed lovely),” “events playing out on immense backdrop but the camera stays doggedly with Alice,” “cameraman has now discovered the dissolve and is practicing for future assignments,” “having one person manipulating a puppet that represents a character while another sings their lines is fine, but the camera work makes it hard to ascertain when this is the case,” “dutch angles and camera tilts at every possible opportunity,” “at one point, it follows a line on the set terminating at a random point- what the significance was I have no idea because I couldn’t see the context.” Again, these irritations were less grating the second time around, and I noticed the inclusions of establishing shots more often than I did during my initial viewing. In retrospect, the problems were probably not the result of the camerawork per se, but poor editing choices that make it seem like it was produced live-to-tape, whether that is the case or not.
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For all those waiting for a verdict regarding the score, I must abstain. I’m new to opera and I have a feeling it will be an appreciation hard won. What at first seemed monotonous or dour to my untutored ears was rather dark and lovely once I turned off the subtitles and just listened. The expected cliché of the overweight titan belting out notes never materialized, as Sally Matthews as Alice completely embodied the role, her lines delivered with childlike urgency or petulance, the pitch spiking every other word, before settling in for a pout with hands cradling the huge mesh mask or twirling, twirling a finger through the tendrils of yarny hair. If there are other newbies out there, give it a try and let me know what you think. Considering the fact that opera is priced out of the reach of most of us, DVD releases are a good option to test the waters. It’s lamentable then that Alice suffers from such amateurish-looking camera work and editing.

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