How to follow The Importance of Being Earnest, Gerald Barry's madcap hat-doff to Oscar Wilde? Why, by giving Lewis Carroll's Alice stories the same treatment. Unfortunately it's nowhere near as good.
The first problem is that Alice's Adventures, both in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, are already so crazy that there's not much Barry can do except make them crazier, with diminishing returns. His Wilde work triumphed because it transformed a drawing room drama into an evening of surreal bliss, but with Alice's Adventures Under Ground only two avenues are open to him: either make the madness madder or else load it with playful pastiche. In the end he opts for both.
The madness is hugely inventive, as expected, and in this concert performance under fellow composer Thomas Adès the Britten Sinfonia plus seven top singers pumped it out like fizzy pop from an open sluice. "D-d-d-d-own!" squealed Barbara Hannigan's Alice in an opening flourish of impossible arpeggios. "Will the fall never end?" It did, 50 manic minutes later, once Barry's feral parade of neo-Dadaism had run its course. Unlike Earnest, though, the reliance on tongue-twisters, funny foreign languages and distorted speech rhythms was unremitting. "The Knave of Hearts he stole THOSE tarts" sang Allan Clayton's White Rabbit, while the complete Jabberwocky recurred in Russian and French – because why not.
As for the pastiche, it's fun but probably won't stand up to repeated scrutiny. Now obvious ("I took a corkscrew from the shelf" is set to the great theme from Beethoven's 9th), now subtle ("Is it all? That is all?" sings a Brittenesque Humpty Dumpty à la Lucretia in the Great British Rape of), it's also present in the orchestration, as when subliminal fragments of courtliness ripple through the royal scenes, or when the spick-and-span orchestra doodles rancidly on patterns from Janáček's Sinfonietta.
Nevertheless, as an end-of-term romp, new music style, it had the Barbican audience roaring its approval for an entertainment that filled happy ears with novelties and didn't outstay its welcome. And the best jokes are indeed joyous, as when the first word of "Beautiful soup" is rattled off in a microsecond, or when the frantic battle between the Red and White Knights heralds a reflective pause and a smoky, waltz-like intermezzo.
Hannigan and Clayton renewed their Written on Skin partnership in virtuosic fashion, she as Alice channelling Bo Peep, he as the devil who gets all the best tunes. Joshua Bloom had plenty of time in the limelight too, while Allison Cook, Hilary Summers, Peter Tantsits and Mark Stone also thrived on Barry's high-wire vocal acrobatics.
Yet for all its composer's technical wizardry, Alice's Adventures Under Ground hardly amounts to a quantum leap forward. Even the title has been used before – in a recent play at the Vaults – although, to be fair, I doubt whether many other Alice settings have ended on a strangulation.
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