Composer Peter Westergaard has been busy this spring. Just two months ago, his two-person opera The Ever Present Present received a staged premiere in Philadelphia, and this past week, the Princeton University Music Department and New York’s Center for Contemporary Opera collaborated to premiere Dr. Westergaard’s ensemble opera based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Seven singers portraying all the characters in the story performed the multi-scene opera in Richardson Auditorium on Thursday night; the entire production will subsequently move to New York’s Symphony Space for additional performances the first week in June.
These seven singers, sopranos Jennifer Winn, Karen Jolicoeur, and Amaia Urtiaga; mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer; countertenor Marshall Coid; tenor David Kellett, and bass Eric Jordan, performed a total of 38 roles among themselves, as well as playing the handbells and percussion instruments of the “orchestra.” Only Ms. Winn was single-cast as the lead character of Alice; the others had up to eight roles to portray, some with elaborate costuming.
The eleven scenes of the opera (together with a prelude and epilogue) were all set on the Richardson stage. What changed the scenery was a screen at the back of the stage with projected animated images designed and executed by Keith Strunk and Laura Swanson. These animated scenes fascinated the audience in their ability to make Alice seem to grow and shrink, and to bring the Cheshire Cat to life. In an opera limited by space to a single stage without curtains, the use of computer graphics considerably enhanced the production.
The music of the opera was truly “ensemble,” and each singer had to be incredibly focused to pull off the vocal bits and pieces, both onstage and off. While Alice was orienting herself to her new world, singers offstage provided drones and other vocal effects as accompaniment. There were no arias as such, and to memorize one’s part, it seemed that one pretty much had to memorize the entire opera, so intricately interwoven were the vocal parts.
Soprano Jennifer Winn had already had experience with this role, having performed in the semi-staged “reading” of the opera several years ago. Ms. Winn presented a very appealing red-haired Alice, dressed in a bright costume designed by Sarah Cubbage (with very interesting striped socks for effect). Her vocal part was almost a continuous operatic monologue as she moved from scene to scene. Her dialogue was easy to understand, which was helpful in the extensive interactions with other characters, and her youthful voice was suitable to the part.
Amaia Urtiaga was listed in the program as the “high soprano” of the cast, and she demonstrated phenomenal control over her fragmented vocal bits. Soprano Karen Jolicoeur was very animated as the “Mouse,” singing with a very light voice suitable to the character. Mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer demonstrated a solid and rich vocal tone, especially when expressively portraying the “King of Hearts.”
The men in the cast were equally solid in vocal production and acting. Countertenor Marshall Coid played the role of the “White Rabbit” with ease, and sang with particular power in the “Ugly Duchess’ Kitchen” scene. Tenor David Kellett is always solid on an operatic stage, and has participated in a number of Westergaard premieres. He and Ms. Jolicoeur performed well in tandem as two heads of the “Caterpillar,” and as the “Mad Hatter” (with a great purple hat), he helped bring the scene to the appropriate level of confusion. Bass Eric Gordon presented his most solid singing as the “Queen of Hearts.”
Alice in Wonderland was clearly a tremendous amount of work for the singers, aided by the solid yet unobtrusive conducting of Michael Pratt, who sat just at the edge of the stage. The singers were kept busy every minute, either singing their parts onstage, providing fragmented accompaniment offstage, or playing some sort of instrument. The singers seemed to get their pitches from the handbells, which was a significant achievement in itself. The multi-media effects of Thursday’s production indicated that this opera might be one that works well for television. It was certainly one that might have to be seen again to get the full gist of everything that happened onstage.
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