Saturday 9 June 2012

Aldeburgh Festival 2012: Knussen Double Bill, or, Fairy Tale Magic and Morals

After last summer's amazing Louis Lortie performance at the Snape Proms it was firmly in my mind to make it to some of this year's Aldeburgh Festival. Then the opening weekend was announced and I knew I couldn't miss it. I first discovered Oliver Knussen's two operatic one acters based on Maurice Sendak's childrens books from a BBC Proms television broadcast. I was sufficiently beguiled to buy the CD but I'd never had the opportunity to hear them live, so I have been looking forward to tonight's opening performance with great excitement. I was not disappointed.

The production by Netia Jones and Lightmap put many of those on our main stages this season to shame. Using some of the most imaginative animation I've ever seen and, at least as far as Where the Wild Things Are was concerned (I don't know the book of Higglety Pigglety Pop to be able to judge) staying very faithful to Maurice Sendak's original illustrations, Jones conjured up beguiling imaginary worlds. By themselves the visuals were beautiful, but what made the dramatic side of the evening was the near seamless interaction between cast and animations, whether it was Lucy Schaufer's Jennie biting leaves off an animated plant, or Claire Booth's Max kicking his animated bedroom door shut. We do not see that kind of detailed performance often enough in an operatic context. There was more wonder and drama and emotional punch in these two one acters than in much other opera I have seen this season.

Musically it was fascinating to really listen to these works in a live context once again. I realised how much my ear had changed, how much more music I've heard since that Proms broadcast which I think took place back in 2002. Then I remember being sucked in by the way Knussen set the words of Higglety Pigglety Pop – the simple yet so true meditations of the dog Jennie on how dissatisfied one can be even when one seems to have everything, the quest for “experience” - and the not realising one is getting it at the time. This time I felt I appreciated much more in Knussen's score including the humour – for example, the repeated chorus which ends Pop.

Singers, orchestra and conductor were all on top of their game. Lucy Schaufer as Jennie was probably the standout in terms of diction and her brilliant characterisation of a dog. I also especially enjoyed Claire Booth's performance as the maid Rhoda. All the parts though were excellently taken in both musical and dramatic terms. On stage with them the Britten Sinfonia played magnificently and Ryan Wigglesworth showed that sense of drama crucial to great opera performance.

The performance was clearly not to everyone's taste. I overheard two gentlemen in the gents at the interval complaining forcibly about the lack of surtitles and the miking of singers. I would agree that in an ideal world surtitles would probably have been a good idea – especially for Where the Wild Things Are which has a larger orchestra and where the vocal writing makes it harder to get the words out clearly. I can also see that in places in Higglety Pigglety Pop the subtle miking created slight problems of balance with, for example Graeme Broadbent's Lion sounding just a bit too loud, or other singers not quite delicate enough. But that use of miking created just the right atmosphere in many places adding to the sense of mystery, of other worldliness, particularly where the Wild Things were concerned. It also allowed for a crucial flexibility of movement on stage. The benefits far outweighed the minor problems.

These are wonderful, very human operas. It is astonishing to me that they are not performed more often, perhaps there's a mistaken view that they are “just for children” - a sad error. I would go so far as to suggest that these two operas, in their subtle way, offer a far more powerful commentary on the human condition than Glanert's Caligula. Altogether, this was a beguiling opening to this year's Aldeburgh Festival. A further performance follows at the Barbican in November – pick up your tickets now.

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