Anyone who reaches 60 deserves a celebration; but composer and conductor Oliver Knussen also merits a full retrospective, which is what the Barbican presented in a “Total Immersion” programme this weekend..
Of his two operas for “children of all ages” (adults included), Where the Wild Things Are is the better known. Written over the course of 1979-1983 after the Maurice Sendak classic, it is more accessible in dramatic and musical terms. Certainly, the semi-staging by director and designer Netia Jones was straightforward, if highly inventive. Animated images of Sendak’s signature illustrations were projected on large on-stage screens, while costumed singers performed in front, often in synchronisation with the images.
Dressed in a white wolf suit, soprano Claire Booth (a Knussen veteran) excelled as the very naughty, haughty and ultimately contrite Max. Her agile voice ably expressed the boy’s mood swings and naïve innocence. Her acting, too, gave credibility to the rather two-dimensional character in the book. The other singers — including Susan Bickley in the opening role of Mama — acquitted themselves well as the eerily dissonant voices of the Wild Things. But it is really the orchestra that has the second principal role in this opera. Under the controlled and attentive direction of Wigglesworth (another great fan of Knussen), the Britten Sinfonia blazed through the score, giving equal weight to its simple lyricism and colourful flourishes.
In comparison, Higglety Pigglety Pop! is a more complex work, although it is, perhaps, the better of the two. The semi-staging was less successful than that of its predecessor, with Jones again opting to fuse ‘live’ singing and acting with animated illustrations. These were less arresting than in Where the Wild Things Are, and there were a couple of obvious glitches: Soprano Susanna Andersson failed to correctly line up a hand-held camera against her mouth in order to project it onto the centre of an image of the Potted Plant; and stage hands visibly scuttled behind the screens before the start of the final scene.
The music of Higglety is more ‘operatic’ in style than Wild Things, with clearly defined arias and ensemble pieces. This made extra demands on the singers, of whom Graeme Broadbent excelled as the menacing Lion, and Christopher Lemmings as the debonair Cat Milkman. Lucie Schaufer could have given more pathos as the neo-ingénue terrier Jennie, while Claire Booth’s Rhoda was a bit overplayed. Once again, Wigglesworth and the Britten Sinfonia pulled out all the stops for this multi-textured work. Knussen’s intentional tributes to Ravel and Mussorgsky were clearly discernable, but so were Knussen’s own individual brands of harmonic and instrumental invention.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk