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Knussen Double Bill

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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"Well, I stayed" declared a small boy on the way out. "You did," smiled his dad. "All the way through. Good boy." Duty done. Take the rest of the evening off.

In truth, a good number of parents with children had left – fled? – the Barbican Hall at the midway point of this double bill; and if they had struggled with Where the Wild Things Are, the more easily digestible of these two operas by Oliver Knussen drawn from the picture books of Maurice Sendak, they were probably right to do so. Ryan Wigglesworth, the conductor, hints clearly enough in the programme that neither work is ‘for children', although he ducks the issue of just who the target audience might be. The answer, I think, is that they're for those of us who also appreciate Ravel's L'Enfant et les sortilèges, that earlier ‘children's opera for adults' of which WTWTA is a thinly-disguised remake.

It is hard to imagine a mature audience failing to respond to the charms of this accessible pair of operas, especially in these stagings first seen at this year's Aldeburgh Festival where the sky-high musical standards of Wigglesworth's forces (not least the playing of immaculate Britten Sinfonia) were coupled to conceptually and visually enthralling productions by Netia Jones.

Although both operas benefited from Jones's inventive video realisations, Where the Wild Things Are had the more immediate appeal. It featured a hyper-energetic, vocally impressive central performance from Claire Booth as Max, the naughty boy who sails off to the land of monsters. The beasts themselves were neatly doubled by a grotesque clutch of intimidating adults who were clearly the ‘real' monsters of the boy's waking hours (for yes, spoiler alert, it was all a dream) – an inspired touch by the director that also provided some top-drawer supporting singers with a little stage time. Susan Bickley, no less, was also on hand in a brief but telling appearance as Max's harassed, hoovering mother.

There was plenty of limelight for the secondary characters in Higglety Pigglety Pop, which is more an absurdist fantasy than a children's fable and thus occupies territory akin to that of ‘grown-up' works like Julietta and A Dog's Heart. Spotlit roles for Susanna Andersson (Baby), Booth again (Mother), Christopher Lemmings (Cat), Graeme Broadbent (Lion) and Graeme Danby (Pig) supported a luminous central performance by Lucy Schaufer as Jennie, the adventurous terrier who lands up in a show-stopping mini-opera that is to Mozart what ‘Higglety Pigglety Pop' is to ‘Hickory Dickory Dock'. The hour-long score, though, is more amorphous and less sharply etched than its earlier companion, and Knussen's inspiration does seem to sag about half-way through so that when Jennie wails "There is nothing to eat" we have a sense of how she feels.

At times in both works I felt that Jones was staging Sendak rather than Knussen, for there was little sense of an operatic interpretation going on. That, though, is a minor quibble. Like the little boy, I stayed too, and I had a marvellous time.

- Mark Valencia


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