Prom 10: A Wild Rumpus

Knussen
Higglety Pigglety Pop!
Where the Wild Things Are

Rosemary Hardy (soprano)
Valdine Anderson (soprano)
Mary King (mezzo-soprano)
Christopher Gillett (tenor)
Quentin Hayes (baritone)
David Wilson-Johnson (bass-baritone)
Stephen Richardson (bass)

London Sinfonietta
Oliver Knussen


Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 26 July, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Oliver Knussen’s 50th birthday has already been celebrated widely and it seems only fitting that the Proms should salute his unique contribution to our musical life both as conductor and composer. The fact that these wonderful fantasy operas based on Maurice Sendak’s tales have not been staged in this country for so long beggars belief – certainly when considering some of the pap that has found its way into our opera houses.

This was a double celebration. Before Wild Things the Royal Philharmonic Society awarded a characteristically bashful Knussen a richly deserved honorary membership. This involved the surreal experience of Elliott Carter’s voice bellowing around the auditorium singing the praises of the already-embarrassed centre of the audience’s attention who then gave the shortest acceptance speech ever heard.

The audience was small if hugely appreciative. Whoever had the bright idea of advertising this double-bill as suitable for children made a bad mistake. Without the visual aid of the cuddly Wild Things and the adventuresome Terrier in ’HPP!’, Knussen’s music is far too sophisticated to be taken in by young ears. Indeed, there was the departure of several little groups of no-doubt-disappointed youngsters and some rightly irritated parents who probably believed they would hear something akin to Peter and the Wolf.

The cast for these performances contained old and trusted friends. Mary King brilliantly recreated the role of Jennie (the Terrier in search of “more than everything”) in ’HPP!’. Valdine Anderson negotiated the virtuoso antics of Baby with ease, while Stephen Richardson was a particularly fierce Lion. The rest of the distinguished cast gave us entertaining and characterful turns as a Cat, a Pig, and an Ash-Tree that has a heart-stoppingly-beautiful duet with Jennie.

Knussen has readily acknowledged his debt to some of his favourite composers – Ravel, Mussorgsky and Britten included. The Ash-Tree/Jennie duet is a not-very-distant cousin of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges, and in the hands of a lesser composer there may have been more than a raised eyebrow. Such is the care and finesse here that all one does is gasp at the absolute rightness of every note and the pure beauty of the soundworld. The enlarged London Sinfonietta, under the composer’s superfine ear and watchful eye, was needless to say quite excellent.

Where the Wild Things Are saw another creator of the original role, this time Rosemary Hardy as the naughty boy Max, complete with white romper-suit and spectacular tantrum-turn. Therest of the cast (with Wild Things attached to their music stands) grunted, squeaked, grumbled, groaned and spat as only experienced Wild Things can. If there is another living composer that could come up with something as magical, mysterious, funny and beguiling as this then I can’t think of one.

I have a feeling the composer would agree that he would be hard pressed to come up with singers and players who could enter into the spirit of both scores with such care, wit and enthusiasm. A wonderful evening – let’s hope we don’t have to wait until another significant Knussen birthday before these operas get the staging they so badly need.

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