Knussen's operas are based on the books by Maurice Sendak, which presumably Knussen read with his daughter, Sonya. But Sendak's books themselves spring from primeval sources. Nursery stories aren't lullabies. They're sinister. But children are fascinated. Perhaps when they go to sleep they need to be reassured that the dreams they encounter are just "stories" that they'll wake from. Fantasy stimulates creativity. Knussen's operas are for anyone of any age, who values imagination. Operas like these are good for our artistic (and mental) health. Britten wanted Aldeburgh to stimulate creative growth. Whether Knussen completes new work or not, he makes it possible for others to catch the spark.
In Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are a boy called Max is punished for dressing up as a wolf and escapes to a world of monsters. Sendak's illustrations tell the story even more than the words do, so Netia Jones's staging uses projections straight from the book. The staging's not literal though, and incorporates the reality of theatre. Figures appear in silhouette and in ordinary clothes, but act and sing in character, so the video projections aren't obscured. The orchestra can be seen clearly, so you can close your eyes and absorb the music, which is strikingly inventive. Four double basses and contrabassoon make the Wild Things roar, but Max (the vivacious Claire Booth) stands up to them. They look fierce but are rather cuddly. A bit like Knussen himself.
There were many children at the matinee I attended (ironically on what would have been Sendak's 84th birthday), all of them attentive and well behaved. I asked two lads (8 and 11) how they felt. "I loved it when they appeared behind the screen" said one, while the other was fascinated by the instrumentation. They seem to have got a lot out of the experience. These are the kind of audiences we need, people who enjoy without prejudgement and respond imaginatively. Even when some children shouted, it added to the atmosphere.
Oliver Knussen's Devious Nature Puzzles - a double meaning I didn't intend!) The effect is manic, the images anarchic, but the music is elegantly crafted, and played with complete conviction by the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth.
Jenny's transported by a cat (Christopher Lemmings) in a milk float to nurse a baby with a savage, demented glare. At least on the Sendak illustration. The Baby (Susana Andersson) is an adult with a piercing scream. How can Jenny placate this beast? Sendak's images may be pretend Victorian, but these aren't Victorian values. The Baby's Mother (Claire Booth) tells Jenny to let a Lion (Graeme Broadbent) bring the Baby back to her, and so the story ends happily ever after. Or does it? Three surprise "endings" to whip up excitement. It's perfectly in order to laugh and clap as we emerge from the fantasy of the story to the fantasy of the mock toy theatre proscenium. Has Jenny, and have we, found the Mother Goose World Theatre?
This Knussen double bill will be repeated at the Barbican Hall, London in November, with Netia Jones's multimedia presentation. Don't be put off if you can't go with a child. Go with the Child in Yourself, and benefit even more. Netia Jones's Before Life and After comes to Aldeburgh from 20 to 22nd June and moves to the Cheltenham Music Festival thereafter. This is a show built round Britten's Winter Words, Finzi's A Young Man's Exhortation and Tippett's Boyhood's End. James Gilchrist sings. It's a tour de force. Highly recommended - read about the first London performance HERE.
Oliver Knussen conducted the Scottish Chamber Orchestra the previous evening in a typically intricate puzzle of a programme. Charles Ives's Washington's Birthday, rather appropriate as Aldeburgh's celebrating Knussen's birthday this year. Diaphanous textures, exqusitely defined by this excellent orchestra. Very similar orchestration (harp and piano on concerto) to Alexander Goehr's Marching to Carcassonne (2002 rev 2005) with Peter Serkin, with whom Knussen has been closely connected for many years. Serkin understands the Don Quixotic spirit of the piece, where Knights march into battle but go round in circles, never reaching their goal. The harpist is Serkin's Sancho Panza, the harp's pedal held down so the strings play tautly, like a medieval stringed instrument. Goehr's sense of humour, which Knussen has inherited. Surprise non-endings, as in Higgelty Piggelty Pop! Goehr was roundly applauded, and beamed.
Full, more formal review soon in Opera Today
Production photos: Eamonn McCabe