This co-production of Aldeburgh Festival with the Barbican and the LA Philharmonic only opened in Suffolk a month after the death of Maurice Sendak, making it feel as the definitive end to this long collaboration with Oliver Knussen. Having Netia Jones on board gave the production values a welcome lift and interestingly moved the monsters in Wild Things permanently on the screen allowing the Max of Claire Booth free reign on the raised stage platform behind the Britten Sinfonia to jump and writhe to roll and to crouch, while singing with clarity and childish enthusiasm.
The score is a bright, colourful quilt that boisterously illustrates and suggests the action. He included an overwhelming percussion section adorned playfully with cow bell, wind machine, glockenspiel, maracas, wooden clogs and a balloon waiting to be popped when the frumpy Mama of Susan Bickley showed up with a menacing vacuum cleaner. I can only imagine how impressive it would seem to young ears when, for instance, the antiphonal clanging announces the arrival of a scary lion.
This production avoided naff monster costumes and instead opted for Sendak’s well crafted drawings as an animated projection. Affording it a much sleeker look and enhancing its appeal to the demanding young fans and the many adults present. Knussen’s boisterous score is full of mischief but found the quiet moments that shine brighter. The particularly mesmerising quiet passage when Max boards a boat in scene 3 full of textural effects suggesting the sea journey ahead was a great example of the atmospheric writing.
I have to admit to finding Wild Things much more difficult to get into; feeling that Knussen went too heavy handed in the orchestration, at times being rather shouty and attention seeking. The animation on screen was spread across the whole screen, simulating the double spreads of the book with a separate booth at stage left looking like a standing book, becoming the home of the singers that voiced the monsters on screen. Unfortunately during the first opera the Barbican’s speakers picked up some interference marring the more quiet passages with intermittent buzzes.
The second half was a much more pleasurable and more evenly produced piece. Knussen’s score for Higglety, the direction and Sendak’s delicate black and white line drawings were in perfect harmony.
The projection screen was now split in nine sections allowing for a more dynamic projection and somewhere for Jennie the Sealyham terrier to hide and interact with more spontaneity and dynamism. Lucy Schaufer was a wonderfully devoted and thoughtful presence and with the right amount of doggie spark. Her singing and acting in what must be a very heavy and warm shaggy dog costume was superb. Susanna Andersson made for a very loud, funny and churlish baby, a great antagonist to Jennie’s calm resolve and searching personality. Again Sendak’s story presenting a dog in a state of existential angst is not the most obvious subject but alongside the flowing score, full of whimsical quotations was intriguing. It’s both a memorialisation of his dead dog and an interesting reverie into the interplay of the mundane and the fundamental.
The orchestral textures were simplified in comparison to Wild Things allowing his invention to shine through unadulterated and strong. The final scene at the World Mother Goose Theatre introduces much needed colour in both the illustration and the costumes, finishing the work with a child friendly repeat of the performance of Higglety Pigglety Pop!
Higglety, pigglety, pop!
The dog has eaten the mop;
The pig’s in a hurry,
The cat’s in a flurry,
Higglety, pigglety, pop!
Can only imagine how daunting it must be for Ryan Wigglesworth (like Knussen himself, both a Conductor and Composer) to conduct those two operas with the composer present. He contributed a thoughtful programme note, which can be read here. Both he and the Britten Sinfonia produced an admirable flow and ebb for both pieces, their specialisation in contemporary music evidently helping them along and generating spark and excitement.
It was a very moving evening and it was wonderful to see such a dedicated on stage team making the two quirky fantasy operas shine and Knussen obviously proud of the result with an audience that was deeply reverential and grateful. The ingenious staging with live controlled animation was a masterstroke and hope this production will have an afterlife in other venues and continents.