Opera News
Joe Cadagin
June 1, 2018

David Del Tredici's name is closely associated with Lewis Carroll’s. Del Tredici’s nine major Alice in Wonderland works, written between 1968 and 1996, were paradoxically daring for their use of tonality during an era of serialist snobbery. After studies at Princeton in twelve-tone composition, Del Tredici slowly moved toward his trademark neo-Romantic style, which he felt was better suited to the Victorian nonsense texts of his favorite author. Child Alice, a 1980 Pulitzer winner, marks the apotheosis of this development. It’s a grand symphonic behemoth for soprano and orchestra, lasting more than two hours with a score of almost a thousand pages. On this first complete recording of the work, Boston Modern Orchestra Project and director Gil Rose revel in the orgiastic overabundance of Del Tredici’s Mahlerian sonorities. 

Child Alice shares the same two-part structure as Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, with Carroll’s “Child of the Pure Unclouded Brow” as the main text of Part I and a setting of his “All in the Golden Afternoon” in Part II. These prefatory poems to Through the Looking-Glass and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, respectively, lack the absurdity of the more familiar nonsense verses. They’re expressions of bittersweet nostalgia in which Carroll—or more accurately, Charles Dodgson—recalls the magic boating trip in Oxford when he first invented the Wonderland stories for Alice Liddell and her two sisters. Del Tredici depicts an idealized version of that “happy summer day,” as Carroll might have remembered it. Hunting horns and woodwind birdsongs convey a pastoral character, along with plush evocations of Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Richard Strauss. 

However, Child Alice isn’t simply some retro, wholesale return to Romanticism. Del Tredici has been unfairly labeled a sellout by his modernist detractors, but there’s an experimental strain running beneath the glittering surface of his music. Despite the work’s epic length, there are only two themes: Part I introduces a soaring, bel canto-tinged melody, and Part II adds a skipping, British-sounding tune—something to which a Victorian audience might have promenaded at the Crystal Palace. In a ten-minute theme-and-variations piece, this limited material would pose no problem to a composer. But Del Tredici sets himself the challenge of sustaining interest over two hour-plus halves on a tight motivic budget. He subjects the two melodies to an imaginative string of transformations—overlapping, Ivesian marches; buoyant waltzes; a massive fugue crowned by a three-voice quodlibet; and scherzo-like “nonsense” sections that incorporate cartoonish percussion noises. 

This maximalist alternative to minimalist repetition allows for continuous reinvention, and conductor Rose ensures that each iteration feels like a fresh departure over the long orchestral movements that bridge soprano Courtenay Budd’s solo passages. Her vocal line is unforgiving—Del Tredici places the two themes in an uncomfortably high tessitura but also demands an enormous range. (At one point, the soprano climbs two and a half octaves from the low G beneath the staff to a high B above.) Budd, amplified over the BMOP’s blaring orchestral forces, manages to execute these Wagnerian extremes with remarkable lightness and sparkling vibrato. 

Although Budd’s performance imparts childlike innocence, there’s something almost decadent about the sheer excess of Child Alice. The key is constantly changing in an endless chromatic ascent, driving a succession of intensifying climaxes with titles like “Ecstatic Alice,” “Highpoint” and “Climax of Climaxes.” An ever-present wind-machine blows us toward an unachievable endpoint, and subtle references to Tristan suggest some unattainable desire. It’s vaguely unsettling, especially when coupled with the obsessive repetition of the two central themes, which call to mind the recurring idée fixe of Symphonie Fantastique

But in Child Alice, this fixation is not on a grown woman, as in the Berlioz, but on a little girl. Notorious rumors of Carroll’s supposed pedophilia, spread by scandal-hungry historians and journalists who overanalyze the author’s cherubic photographs of nude children, have been largely disproved. But even if Carroll’s love for Alice wasn’t of a sinister nature, there’s no denying that he was haunted by his dream-child. An intensely shy man, Carroll missed his little companions dearly after they grew up. Del Tredici lays bare the tragic corners of his life, inserting a dissonant horn call throughout the work that stabs like a painful memory. Near the end of Child Alice, Carroll’s obsession takes on a wild, impassioned quality in a sobbing cadenza for the soloist. Budd seems to wail uncontrollably as she repeats a single name forty-five times on a plaintive tritone—“Alice!”