The Artist in Residence at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival, the 65th, is a composer/conductor who has long associations with Aldeburgh and indeed shaped its artistic programme for a decade – Oliver Knussen. Knussen is 60 this year and the Festival programme thus started on 8 and 10 June with the sincerest form of tribute to him – a new production of his two one act operas, Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop! Knussen was in the first night audience and enjoyed a huge onstage ovation at the end, the admiration and warmth coming not just from the packed house but particularly from the musicians involved – from conductor Ryan Wigglesworth to the members of the thrillingly in-form Britten Sinfonia to each of his solo singers.
And this was well-deserved, the music-making throughout being of the highest quality. Wigglesworth feels a particular affinity with Knussen’s music and his account of the scores was warm, fluent, with meticulous attention to dynamic levels in the big orchestral passages and to precise, filigree detail in the beautifully varied arioso accompaniments that permeate both works. The players too seemed to be enjoying themselves: Knussen’s music is allegedly difficult, but you would not have thought so from the interplay and smiles from members of the orchestra, not only at the end but also as they were playing. Ensemble work was much in evidence, to the great benefit of the opening evening of a Festival.
Director/designer Netia Jones imposed a simple, effective concept for staging opera in the wide open expanse of the Maltings: build upwards and use technology! For Where the Wild Things Are this gave us (from the top down) two large white screens high against the rear wall, apparently propped flat open like a book (and used for video projection of the wild things and of the ever-changing scenery). Then there was a wide and high platform above the orchestra (who were onstage left at normal stage level), a run of stairs to stage right where two more white screens were half propped open (used both for video projection and, when backlit, for shadow play from the cast behind) and a small number of props on the forestage. The whole stage picture was neat and uncluttered and the interface between orchestra, singers and the video projections was seamless. After the interval, for Higglety Pigglety Pop!, the two high white screens became nine different sized white rectangular screens for the sepia grey video projections, with black space in-between for the singers to climb through. The whole effect was visually imaginative and highly stimulating, the experience being all the better for the precise coordination achieved between score, moving image and live singer.
The two operas are similar in some respects, very different in others. Where the Wild Things Are is the shorter piece, at a mere 45 minutes, and has only two real singing parts: those of Max (Claire Booth) and his mother (Susan Bickley). The other characters, alter egos for Sendak’s own extended Jewish family whom he disliked in real life, sing mainly offstage in ‘Wild Thing’ language (snatches of Yiddish can also be heard) apart from their a capella plea to Max towards the end of his journey “Oh please don’t go/We love you so”, brilliantly visualized on the big screens. The director’s main conceit here was to show the parallels between wild thing and human behaviour: thus for the pages of score that illustrate one of the book’s most famous sequences (“Let the wild rumpus start”), the animal antics on the big screens were echoed by the Jewish family in shadow play, having a fairly abandoned and drunken party. Description may make it sound plodding: in fact it worked, cleverly and effectively.
There was however one area in which the technology let the performances down. Claire Booth has a pure and lovely voice and she soared with ease through the high tessitura of many of her arioso passages, making beautiful sounds - but with scarcely a word discernible. Bickley’s diction was more audible and she managed to project at least some of her words (there are only 300 or so words in the entire libretto) but the crying need was for surtitles! As things were, all the singers were amplified, to help their solo line carry over the wonderfully cacophonous orchestral sound that Knussen conjures up out of nowhere, but I would defy anyone in the audience to say that they could hear what the characters were singing. With such a well-known story, and such a clear narrative depiction, it may sound like carping to ask for surtitles for a short opera sung in English – but what a difference it would have made. As things were, in the soft and dreamy monologue as Max sings “I’ll catch it/And cook it/And keep it hot” we suddenly became aware of what we were missing. Speech, words, allusive and full of meaning – and the opera came alive, instead of being largely unintelligible. Hence the four, not five star rating.
In Higglety Pigglety Pop! there was a slight improvement in the audibility of words from the soprano lead, Lucy Schaufer as the Sealyham Jennie, whose voice had a more soubrettish quality. Graeme Broadbent produced a cavernous bass sound as the lion, and Graeme Danby a warm and highly attractive baritonal sound as the pig in sandwich boards. All the singers were more in evidence too, using the downstage right stage area in front of the folded screens to project the individual character and personality of the roles they were taking, as Jennie made progress in her quest for experience and the meaning of her own existence. The narrative fable has a Magic Flute-like quality to it and Knussen’s skilful insertion into the musical fabric of tiny fragments taken from other composers’ work (Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and of course Mozart himself) makes the world he creates seem familiar. Britten put a musical parody onstage in the last act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with a riotous jumble of 19th century operatic quotations: I found myself thinking of that as the actual Higglety Pigglety Pop sequence is sung by the Mother Goose World Theatre (several times) as the finale to Jennie’s quest. It is a light-hearted end to an attractive hour of music theatre.
In fact I enjoyed the production so much that I returned for the second performance, this time with grandchildren in tow, to a much more relaxed audience than the first night crowd and at least a couple of hundred children in evidence. The reception was probably even warmer, the performances just as focused and splendidly sung and played as on opening night. My grandchildren fared no better than me in discerning the sung text, but they ‘got’ the music straight away. Britten would have been delighted.