Tag Archives: Claire Booth

The big child inside / Where the Wild Things Are + Higglety Pigglety Pop! / Barbican Hall – 3 November 2012

6 Nov

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.

Read More

Knussen Double Bill Programme  (PDF) 

Blog dedicated to the new production

Piece by Netia Jones on her collaboration with M Sendak

Piece by Claire Booth on working with Knussen’s music

Wild Things and Glyndebourne



Almaviva croakes / The Barber of Seville / Scottish Opera / Edinburgh Festival Theatre – 19 November 2011

24 Nov

Had planned a trip to Edinburgh about four months ago, a city I particularly love. And looking through listings I realised that Scottish Opera were in town, with their Barber. So I thought it was a good reason to attend my first production by the company. This was a revival of the 2007 Tom Allen production and considering the complicated, roaming nature of the company it is very well done overall. Have to admit to having a bias against singers directing opera as they tend to either lack ideas or to just mush into a pulp elements of the different productions they have been in and trying to pass it off as something new.

Allen’s Seville is thoroughly traditional in look, down to the last window shatter. The set is essentially a street frontage with a removable section that gives access to Dr Bartolo’s house. It is well done if slightly unimaginative. One major plus for lots of viewers will be the hugely cluttered set, lots of net curtains, tables, a framed reproduction of Goya’s La maja desnuda resting against the wall upright, birdcages hanging from the ceiling etc etc etc. Personally I find too much clutter restricts what the singers can do on stage and for an opera buffa like the Barber it can create over reliance to nick nacks to arouse amusement. Which brings it too close to panto. No, don’t think for a minute I’m encouraging bare sets with a huge incline, as the current fashion. But we have to question how wise it is to have traditional productions that degrade the content to repetitive slapstick. Any production of the Barber has to be entertaining but that has to come from the performances as the moving force n0t the silly addition of false teeth or cubic meters of talcum powder.

Knowing of the recent troubles of the orchestra of Scottish Opera, I was most apprehensive about their performance. They seemed to respond well to the energetic conducting of Francesco Conti, despite the odd mishap here and there, they gave a lively if a bit underpowered in volume, reading (I’d attribute that to the acoustic of the theatre making the orchestra sound too small). It’s such a familiar score most of us become over-critical to the point of being unfair. An older gentleman seating in front of me spent most of the evening looking totally transfixed by the sight of the conductor, a rather amusing distraction from the awfully uncomfortable seating! How can they possibly be using this theatre alongside the Usher Hall as the main venue for the Festival every year? After the First Act my back was aching like hell!

The cast overall gave a spirited and committed performance, but have to single out Thomas Walker whose assumption of Count Almaviva was terribly worrisome during the First Act. While his tone is warm and has the handsome looks, he seemed to be very uncomfortable with any sections that drove him above forte. His upper register had a shrillness and coarse texture, that combined with the veiled quality of the voice made it a struggle to sit through the Act. Was he unwell, we were not informed but really felt for him as he surely must have being uncomfortable. I can though happily mention that his Second Act was a huge improvement, the veiled sound had disappeared and his singing became much more even and handsome throughout his range. A recovery of such extent I’ve never witnessed before!

One aspect that is the most difficult to deliver in any production of the Barber is comic timing. This cast surely gelled well together and particularly Figaro, Don Basilio and Dr Bartolo seemed to have a whale of a time. The Rosina of Claire Booth was a sweet creature with intelligence and cheek. Her Una voce was well detailed but lacked the liquidity in the upper register that makes it seem effortless. But her stage presence and charm made up for that. Her music lesson scene was a true star turn. In turns smitten and resolute. I’m sure it must be a lovely time to spend away from all the contemporary roles she has been taking on in the last few years.

Ville Rusanen’s Figaro was effervescent, with a true weasely look to him and a voice that tackled the runs and high notes with agility and gleam. Maybe not a truly Italianate voice with a more resonant chest voice, but a sensation on the night and rightfully so. My only criticism would be that he broke out of character after his Largo al Factorum, but that’s a touch mean spirited of me to mention.

Tiziano Bracci’s Dr Bartolo, a role so central to the story and a true Basso Buffo was another true star turn. He was lovably odd and calculating. His stage charisma is undeniable and aroused some loud belly laughs from the audience. Especially his singing during the music lesson was exemplary and a comedic master class. An excellent casting choice by Scottish Opera.

All in all a wonderfully entertaining evening out, despite the shortcomings of the staging. Next time I see a Scottish Opera production though, I’ll make sure it’s not at the same venue, those seats can leave me paralysed next time (OK that’s a Mediterranean exaggeration, but you get the point). Also I’m hoping to hear them reverse the current arrangements for their orchestral players that have essentially become part time contractors. An opera company lives and dies on a good quality orchestra that is dedicated and well rehearsed, the current situation at SO seems like the wrong way to go to bring costs down and bridge any budgetary shortcomings. I should not forget to mention the three ladies on my left who brought out a box of Lindor (very appropriate in a way with “Lindoro” on stage) early in Act One and loudly shook it and started eating the contents…I looked on with resentment and then Una Voce came up. Never mind!

%d bloggers like this: