Pacific Opera Victoria’s film version of Canadian composer/librettist Elizabeth Raum’s The Garden of Alice, seen on a big screen at the Royal Theatre Feb. 24, is an odd creature. Sophisticated in some ways, naive in others; like Alice, more than a little uncertain about the wacky new world in which it has landed.
This production was not meant to be a film. The intention, during an earlier phase of the COVID pandemic, was to perform the chamber opera for small audiences in POV’s Baumann Centre while also live-streaming it for an at-home audience. When tightening COVID protocols ruled out the live component, the company decided to try to produce a motion picture, something it had never done before. And not just any motion picture, but one requiring green-screen technology, with which David Malysheff, the director of photography POV brought in to supply filmmaking expertise, had little experience.
A lot went right. The concept, an older Alice gravely ill in hospital and hallucinating the events of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was clever, and it gave a starring role to the great Canadian soprano, Tracy Dahl, who first sang the role as a 24-year-old in 1985. Having hospital staff do double and sometimes even quadruple duty as characters in Wonderland was great fun, while the sets and costumes by Pam Johnson and the original art design by Emily Cooper (replacing the green screen in post-production) were wonderful.
The singing of the six-person cast was uniformly excellent. Dahl retains the high, bright coloratura of her younger years, while baritone Justin Welsh (White Rabbit/Doctor) continues to impress as both singer and actor. Tenor Asitha Tennekoon (Knave of Hearts/Custodian) was a lovely surprise. In his POV debut, the tenor had to wait a long time for his big moment, but he made the most of it when it came: thrown in jail by the Queen of Hearts (mezzo Megan Latham), Tennekoon made his plea for release a vivid highlight in a section of the opera that sagged after too many abrupt scene changes and not enough musical variety.
Conductor Timothy Vernon and director Glynis Leyshon decided to abridge Raum’s opera by 20 minutes. Some essential transitions from the earlier version may have been lost, making the score feel a little monotonous and the story more than a little jerky. It didn’t help that the tone of the production was also unsettled. Raum’s opera might be based on a children’s book, but its music is not for the most part upbeat—it often feels like it was written in near despair—and Leyshon’s direction never quite finds a safe spot to land. Is this a happy opera for kids, or a melancholy opera for adults?
This Garden was also clearly a freshman effort at filmmaking and using green-screen technology compared to the brilliant use of digitally created backgrounds and other high-tech effects we’ve all seen in Hollywood films. For an audience used to POV’s long history of well-thought-out and well-crafted live productions, this might have felt like a shame. However, this production was a terrifically complex undertaking, and what it accomplished in bringing a formidable cast and fabulous designers together to work in a whole new genre must be applauded. I think we can also be confident that the company, should it continue making opera on film, will quickly master the technology and techniques it needs. In the meantime, The Garden of Alice remains an opera with a lot of promise that cries out for just the right stage production.
More on Pacific Opera Victoria’s 2022 season here.