Talbot: Alice in Wonderland (Ballet)
Royal Opera House Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth
Opus Arte (Blue-ray) BD 7090
Total Time: 121 minutes + 30 minute documentary
Here in the US the distinctions and lines of popular and art music tend to be drawn rather strictly. Classical music fans might find it odd that a film composer writes a symphony, concerto, or other similar traditional art form. In Great Britain, the lines are a little less strict with composers essentially working under the definition of a “commission” regardless of whether the end result is for the concert hall, stage, or screen. That is to simply lessen what might at first seem an odd project for a composer such as Joby Talbot. Talbot’s film music began gaining attention with his score for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) and Son of Rambow (2007). The critical attention Talbot received no doubt led to this commission from the Royal Ballet, the first such new work commissioned in some 20 years! The show was filmed and recently broadcast in the UK. It likely will find its way to a PBS membership drive near you or at least end up as part of the Great Performances series.
Lewis Carroll’s fantasy Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has had its share of live and animated dramatic presentations. Most seem to fare only moderately well. No doubt this has to do with the rather odd cast of characters and the need to try and interpret them in a way that can satisfy the book’s many fans. This new production takes some cues from Tim Burton’s fantastical costuming and scenery to create a stage setting that mixes visual media with stunning sets and costuming. The special effects are always well-managed stage craft that brings out the humorous and macabre aspects of the story.
One wonders how much of another beloved ballet, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, may have been in the minds of the creators of this production. There is the opening scenes of semi-domestic life around a table offering several set dance pieces which is then followed by a magical transportation to another realm or world with fantastical characters and events. The “Arab Dance” is one such nod perhaps to Tchaikovsky here. Talbot’s music for that scene creates the sense of Arabic styles within a more traditional orchestral sound that perfectly matches the visuals. A waltz towards the end of the first act too is a real highlight as it adds to the primary thematic material for Alice in a delightful sequence. At 68 minutes the first Act feels a bit long though, though it does really feel like the time flies.
The visually stunning aspects of this production, often involving filmed effects, continue into Act II which places the Queen of Hearts’ labyrinth as a backdrop effectively. More dissonant musical ideas enter in to this part of the ballet, picking up where her appearance in Act 1 left off. As a bit of a shift musically, Talbot is working in smaller units here that are a bit more minimalistic in nature and which additionally feature more syncopated rhythms that suggest a jazzier musical world. It works very well and Talbot’s decision to bring in these sounds, some which highlight comic business on stage, works very well to set up the menace of the Queen whose costume has to be one of the ballet’s more amusing highlights. She gets her own, often humorous solo dance, set up with music as if we are back in the land of Tchaikovsky which Talbot manages to recreate here so beautifully that the humor works perfectly without being too overt. It is in fact in Act II where we get a real sense of his gift at shaping story, underscoring a scene, and hitting the right sense of tone. Perhaps because the story itself essentially stops as well here, the ballet gets a chance to really shine with a series of wonderfully engaging segments, A set of flamingos appear at one point for a rather intriguing dance with hedgehogs ushered in and out rather quickly for comic effect during croquet. And it is here too where we see how Talbot’s music can recess into the audience’s subconscious as antics appear on stage. The White Rabbit’s solo brings in some rather interesting syncopations and a sound that is almost out of a Bernstein Broadway show. But while the first act belongs to Alice, Act II is really the Queen’s and her shadow is cast even over the segments where her physical presence is not on stage. The end of the adventure does receive more cinematic musical treatment, but it still works well within the context of the work.
Talbot’s score is filled with a variety of delightful moments. The ticking clock motif is one of a couple important recurring ideas that help unify the piece as a whole. The Act I waltz, Queen of Hearts solo dance, and the set pieces in Act 1 are all quite engaging. The sense of magic is well-captured in the score and it floats through the scenes especially with Alice. The music enjoys a semi-Romantic style with several lyrical themes that wind their way through the score. The set dances manage to stay well within a more conservative ballet sound making the work accessible to audiences as well. Talbot also manages to capture the macabre aspects of the story that first appear as Alice gets small and large with fabulous sets helping create the illusion. A scene in a butcher shop is equally unusual. But the magical music that floats through the work is always striking. Act One has some rich orchestral writing with nice touches that are a bit Impressionistic at times. Act Two shows off more of Talbot’s underscoring sense and ability for parodistic music that accents fine comedy. The ballet itself is roughly an hour and fifty minutes in length.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland will likely be one of Talbot’s more endearing works. It certainly is one of his finest accomplishments and one can hope that at the very least a suite of music from the ballet will find its way onto concert programs. There certainly is plenty to draw from here to make that a reality. The Opus Arte sound and production is stunning with excellent sound and picture that makes it feel as if you are there in the house. Certainly, this is a work that will stand up well on subsequent viewings and hearings.
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