Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!
Helen Wallace reviews Oliver Knussen's two fantasy operas
Yellow eyes rolled. Children laughed. A bass drum propelled an already dizzyingly complex orchestral score into a frenzied dance. The wild rumpus had begun…This was the brief London appearance of the Aldeburgh Festival’s double-bill of Oliver Knussen's two fantasy operas based on books by Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are and Higgledy Piggledy Pop! part of the Barbican’s Knussen Total Immersion weekend.
Much has been written of director Netia Jones’s brilliant staging solution: with Sendak’s blessing, she animated his original drawings onto a screen with which Max (a compelling Claire Booth, soprano) interacts. In his outburst of violent animal spirits Max kicks his teddy who flies across the screen; the bed clothes flutter when he slams the door. Like much of Jones’s direction, it’s done with the utmost restraint, but a penetrating passion for her material. Far from unleashing state-of-the-art animatronics onto Sendak’s beasts, she retains their naïve period charm, with repetitive arm waving, clod-hopping movement and fixed grimaces – more Ivor the Engine than Disney, and a whole lot more effective than Spike Jonze’s overblown movie.
Ryan Wigglesworth expertly paced the teeming, through-composed score, a stream of myriad colours shot through with glints of magic harp and driven by scrambling, swooning basses. Two important quotations – from Debussy’s La boîte à joujoux and Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov inform its harmony and sonority: what better musical antecedents? However, with the Britten Sinfonia atop the Barbican stage, with its notoriously uneven acoustics, it sometimes felt congested and overwhelming. Volume and pitch had reached such a roar before the ‘wild rumpus began’ there was almost nowhere to go with it.
Bringing the singers on stage – i.e. Sendak’s Jewish relatives, the ‘real’ wild things - felt clumsy and unnecessary: enough to hear the monsters chant of ‘love you so’, ‘eat you up’ to make the connection.
Sadly, a depleted audience returned for the extraordinary Higglety Pigglety Pop! (see photo below), Knussen’s later commission for Glyndebourne (begun in 1984, finalised in 1999). The surreal odyssey of a dying dog seeking Experience is not one of Sendak’s best-known stories and has long been out of print in this country– which made the removal of much-needed surtitles baffling – but the leave-takers missed a sensational performance. Jennie (beautifully sung by mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer) leaves her comfortable life behind and works her way – via death - to the role of leading lady in the Mother Goose World Theatre.
Unlike Wild Things, this is a number (rather than through-composed) opera of great poise: each character from the ethereal pot plant to the deeply disturbing ‘baby’ (both piercingly realised by soprano Susanna Andersson) is precisely etched by their own characteristic intervals. The monochrome set was only subtly animated, and the relation between the ‘real’ singers and their drawn counterparts simpler than in Wild Things. From the spell-binding lyric opening, to the music-hall ‘Chicken Little’ to the cod Offenbach of the final Higglety-Pigglety Pop! show, this work encompasses an enormous range while remaining mysteriously contained.
Mesmerising gamelan-like music accompanies Jennie’s final sleep under a pile of falling leaves: ‘I went away for ever’. Suddenly, an abyss opens up. Knussen meets the story at its deepest level, as Sendak himself said: ‘It has to be serious, it has to tell a story that’s a little hard to take, it has to draw blood.’
Photos: Mark Allan