The operatic versions Where The Wild Things Are and of Higglety Pigglety Pop! Are currently being staged back to back at the Barbican (in London) as part of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Total Immersion: Oliver Knussen at 60 celebration. Although not entirely sure what to expect from the music, I was familiar with Sendak’s books and interested to find out that he had written the libretti for these operas.
Arriving in a bit of a fluster (delayed due to the Circle Line and mistaken for a member of staff upon entry), I swiped errant children out of my way, ignored the screams of their parents and flumped into my seat just as the lights went down.
Immediately, the staging was engrossing and innovative. The orchestra is sat on the stage, a higher level raised behind them. A huge white screen, filling this upper level, has animations of Maurice Sendak’s memorable drawings projected onto it. Throughout the production the singers interact with these animations.
The music itself was wholly unexpected. I suppose I had assumed there would be a touch of nursery rhyme about the affair. Instead, Knussen’s score was atonal and complex. Max (Claire Booth) opened the singing with a feral, clarion menace. The music tried to capture the idea of a wild child at play and was thus rhythmically frenetic, with high-pitched squeals from an Eb clarinet, undercut with an intermittent brass pedal. It was textural, rather than tonal and cleverly imitative of the action on stage – a deep wash of sound conveyed the noise of Max’s mum’s hoover. Booth and the other singers belted their way through a difficult score with apparent ease. Ryan Wigglesworth was conducting the extremely talented Britten Synfonia.
Watching the idiosyncratic and colourful creations of Sendak come alive on screen was exciting. Netia Jones designed and directed the pieces, combining animation elements that reminded me of Terry Gilliam’s work in Monty Python. But the opera, whose libretto was written by Sendak himself, elaborated subtler elements of the story. As the wild things start their ‘rumpus’ on the screen, Max’s aunts and uncles take to the lower stage, swilling drinks and dancing; these frightening adults with their cardigans and facial hair and smelly breath and yellow teeth and big bellies are the wild things – “We’ll eat you up” they say, each in their own frightening way. The operatic adaptation was darker than the book and, perhaps, over-intellectualised the sort of primal nature of a children’s story.
The same cast adopted different roles for Higglety Pigglety Pop! which used a similar combination of animation and live action, except in black and white. The first oddity of the production was the main character, a dog called Jennie. She philosophises with a flower, argues with a pig, hitches a lift with a cat and feeds a baby to a lion. Again, strong singing. There was much more use of costume as the cast had to be dressed up as animals, and a livelier libretto; the music was slightly more accessible, too.
Overall, with quotations from Mussorgsky and Debussy, the music was much more involved than I was expecting. But, while the stories brought a childish charm to a difficult opera, I was slightly curious about how the children in the audience received it. A strong cast, tight orchestra and innovative staging made this production hugely enjoyable, if a little puzzling at some points and distinctly odd at others.
**** (FOUR STARS)