The opening event was a stupendous staging of his Sendak-inspired operatic double bill – Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop! – too rarely seen together since Glyndebourne’s premiere pairing in 1984. It would be easy to devote all the available space to praising Netia Jones’s ingenious direction and video designs, in association with Lightmap.
With immense skill, they have rendered Sendak’s original drawings as live animation, so the appearance is at once enchanting and familiar – the boy Max in his white wolf suit, the toy boat rocking on a blue-green sea, the wild things with their clawed feet, scaly skin and toothy, ingratiating grins. Higglety Pigglety Pop!, the darker of the two stories, is equally effective, with its venomous, expanding-shrinking baby and the milk cart patiently passing by. All is like a monochrome engraving until the brightly coloured finale in which the nonsense words higglety, pigglety and pop, sung ever faster, take on riotous new life.
The terrific cast, led by the vocally acrobatic Claire Booth as Max and the gloriously cheeky and characterful Lucy Schaufer as Jennie in Higglety, exceeded expectation. Ryan Wigglesworth, a composer-conductor who has been guided by Knussen, drew incisive, glittering playing from the Britten Sinfonia.
The score, performed in these ideal conditions, was a revelation: rich, colourful, sonorous, full of wit and sly reference, vivid in its tears and its smiles. Mozart, Tchaikovsky and, above all, Mussorgsky dash in and out of the music, as if to keep our concentration alert with a shout or a wave. Fantasy opera – Ravel aside – can be an uphill struggle. Knussen’s glimmer and glow in a class of their own. This co-production with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association and the Barbican can be seen in London for two performances on 3 November. Go.
Fiona Maddocks, Observer
Knussen may be parsimonious in his productivity – only acknowledging thirty-five works in a 45-year composing career – but in his operatic settings of Maurice Sendak’s children’s fantasies Where the Wild Things Are (1983) and its semi-sequel Higglety Pigglety Pop! (1985) he created timeless classics. Sendak himself designed the Glyndebourne premiere of this double bill, but those wanting to restage it have mostly had to put up with concert performances, as Sendak’s exquisitely charming drawings (which are as much the essence of the operas as the music is) have proved impossible to replicate – until now.
Enter the virtuoso director/designer Netia Jones with a wonderfully elegant solution: live casts led by two brilliant singer-actors, Claire Booth and Lucy Schaufer, who interact with back-projections of Sendak’s drawings which Jones animates in real time. Thus does wicked little wolf-suited Max perpetrate his tricks on the looming Wild Things, while Jennie the Sealyham terrier sets off on her crazy adventures through forests and across seas. Booth kicks a drawn door which slams shut, Schaufer creates a cross-hatched lion and puts her head in its mouth, and conjures up a life-size technicolor toy theatre: this is not so much surrealism as the heightened reality of the child’s-eye view. Sendak had the joy of knowing this production would happen, but died a month before its premiere; after this Aldeburgh outing it will get two further performances at the Barbican on November 3 as part of a weekend devoted to Knussen’s oeuvre. And if Jones’s stagings take the breath away, so does the perfection of their meld with the music, as performed by the Britten Sinfonia under Ryan Wigglesworth’s incisive direction.
There are differences between these scores, but what they share is a playfully allusive wit and a bright translucence as the musical ideas morph intricately: Knussen’s highly-coloured sound-world is an invigorating place to be. And to see this great bear-like figure go on to conduct the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in works by Ives, Berg, Stravinsky, and Goehr – composers he has long championed – before receiving the Outstanding Musician award from the Critics’ Circle, was to realise that at last he may be getting his due.
Michael Church, Independent *****
Fittingly enough, the director and video artist Netia Jones built her production around a fantastical adaptation of Sendak’s own designs, making for a moving tribute. Thanks to her video animations the space feels bigger, and boundaries are further blurred as singers interact with the storybook projections or disappear behind the screens in silhouette. Jones’s freewheeling imagination is in tune with the music itself, and the manic energy of Wild Things and lyrical whimsy of Higglety are delivered by the virtuosic Britten Sinfonia under Ryan Wigglesworth. The excellent casts are headed by Claire Booth (Max) and Lucy Schaufer (Jennie), both giving athletic turns.
John Allison, Seven magazine, Telegraph
Video has now come to Oliver Knussen’s 1980s double bill of Maurice Sendak operas, Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop! These were staged together by Glyndebourne Touring Opera in 1984 using puppets, with Sendak himself the designer. They opened this year’s Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk on Friday with video by Netia Jones, who was able to consult with Sendak on the ideas she had for animating his images and integrating them with live action.
The Maltings in Snape, where the festival performances took place, is not an opera house, and later performances by the show’s co-producers, the Barbican in London and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, will not bring this production into an opera house.
In the absence of a pit, the chosen layout has the orchestra (an on-form Britten Sinfonia under Ryan Wigglesworth) at the front of the stage, with the action raised up behind them, and the video projected behind that again.
There is something absurdly magical about having a real human being appear to pluck a leaf from a video image, or throw a non-physical object across the screen. It’s a simple conceit, but one which retains a sense of wonder, especially when the imagery involved is pure Sendak. That’s what Jones offers here: all the familiar fine-lined fantasy and grotesquerie, but with moving parts, eyes that roll, jaws that open, a horse that trots.
Aldeburgh’s two leads, Claire Booth’s Max, the child who conjures up and controls the Wild Things, and Lucy Schaufer’s Jennie, the terrier who has nothing and everything and longs to be a leading lady, were both energetic and exuberant, and the supporting cast, whether behind the scenes or visibly present, threw themselves into their characters with gusto.
Michael Dervan Irish Times ****
This example was a triumph. A paradox of Wild Things and Higglety which part-explains why they’re not often done is that, although short and ostensibly for children, they’re complex works written (if not over-written) for a large orchestra. Wild Things in particular functions like an exuberant and richly scored orchestral tone poem with added voice, in the French manner of Poulenc’s Voix Humaine. And a further problem is that both pieces are so bound to their source material – children’s books by Maurice Sendak – that it’s impossible to think of them being staged without Sendak’s illustrations. All of which is bound to tie the hand and cramp the style of any stage director.
But Netia Jones, the director here, found an encompassing solution to these problems, using computer-animations of the Sendak drawings designed to interact with the live performers. Brilliant, neat, enchanting, it was a superlative success – effectively reducing the live focus of each opera to one character but with no great sense of loss and a more-than-compensating sense of spectacle that London audiences will see in autumn when the show plays at the Barbican.
Knussen’s dazzling orchestral writing was magnificently handled by the Britten Sinfonia under Ryan Wigglesworth. And though it was hard to hear the text, the two leads – Claire Booth as the child in Wild Things, Lucy Schaufer as the dog in Higglety – acted and sang their hearts out. Joyously.
Michael White, Telegraph
The main attraction was a new production of Knussen’s operatic double-bill based on children’s books by Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!. A notable success when they were performed at Glyndebourne in 1985, they have waited until now for another staging in the UK. Perhaps that has to do with the challenge of how to present the operas visually: Sendak’s much-loved drawings are so integral to the stories that it is hard to see how to manage without them.
This is where the director, Netia Jones, has delivered her masterstroke. Taking the original illustrations, she has turned them into animated projections – easy perhaps to imagine, but not to bring off as triumphantly as she has. In the months before he died earlier this year, Sendak blessed the project and would surely be delighted to see how sensitively it has been carried out.
Are these really children’s operas or not? Everything we see – the fantastical journey to a land of comic beasties in Where the Wild Things Are, the nursery-tale line-up of characters in Higglety Pigglety Pop! – says yes. But Knussen has supplied music that is so intricately adult, even when it is addressing fairy-tale or comedy, that the operas rouse our grown-up intellect as much as they tickle our sense of childish whimsy.
The Aldeburgh casts, led by Claire Booth and Lucy Schaufer, were first-rate, and the conductor, Ryan Wigglesworth, led the excellent Britten Sinfonia on aural flights of fancy. The only problem was the acoustic of the Maltings at Snape, which caused the orchestra to boom so heavily that much of the detail was lost and the words were drowned out. Let’s hope the balance will be better when the production comes to London’s Barbican in November.
Richard Fairman FT ****
A celebration of Oliver Knussen’s 60th birthday is the first thematic strand in this summer’s Aldeburgh festival. Knussen, a former artistic director of the festival, features as both conductor and composer, and the programme opened with a new staging by director and video artist Netia Jones of his operatic double bill based upon Maurice Sendak‘s children’s classics, Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!.
Few operas can be more tightly bound up with the visual images of the stories that inspired them than these. The only staging of the double bill previously seen in Britain, Glyndebourne’s original 1984 production, was designed by Sendak himself. That brought the illustrations from his books so vividly alive that it’s hard to imagine a version that did not put Max in his wolf suit to sail to the island of the Wild Things, or have a plausible Sealyham dog as Jennie, the heroine of Higglety Pigglety Pop!, who believes there must be more to life than having everything.
Jones has understood this perfectly, and having discussed her productions with Sendak a few months before his death, she has utterly faithful to his visual world, while animating it in a perfectly judged, gently witty way. So Claire Booth’s Max in Wild Things, and Lucy Schaufer’s Jennie in Higglety confront the other characters in their personal odysseys as screen images, while their roles are sung from off stage; the synchronising of live performer and video is wonderfully accomplished.
…But what emerges so forcefully in hearing these one-acters again is the formal elegance of both works – Wild Things is a through-composed work; the more varied, psychologically complex Higglety a number opera divided into set-piece arias and ensembles – and the dazzling imagination of Knussen’s sound world. With its vast range of stylistic references, there is not a note out of place. The performances are outstanding, with Booth and Schaufer tirelessly superb, and singers such as Graeme Danby, Graeme Broadbent and Christopher Lemmings doubling roles across the two operas. Both pieces are superbly conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth, and so thrillingly played by the Britten Sinfonia, that one can easily the forgive the moments, in Wild Things especially, where the text becomes impossible to decipher.
Andrew Clements, Guardian ****