Another excellent release from the admirable DG 20/21 series, this time a co-production with BBC Radio 3. Oliver Knussen¡¦s double-bill of fantasy operas, HIGGLETY PIGGLETY POP! and WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, both based on books by Maurice Sendak, have been given wonderful performances here, which would surely appeal to many music lovers both young and old.
Both operas deal with, in a humorous fashion, the quest for experience and adventure by a frustrated individual. In the more sparsely orchestrated HIGGLETY PIGGLETY POP!, a Sealyham terrier, Jennie, feels there must be something more in the world than the comfortable but idle haven in which she resides. She starts out on her journey, encountering a Pig-in-Sandwich-Boards, a Cat-Milkman, Rhoda the housemaid, a screaming Baby and a Lion on her way, before ending up as the new lead lady of The World Mother Goose Theatre. The opera ends with a hilarious performance of The World Mother Goose Theatre in the form of an opera within an opera.
In WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, a naughty boy, Max, provokes his mother¡¦s anger and is sent to bed without supper. Alone, he fantasises about the wild woods and is transported to a forest, which is inhabited by some threatening and noisy ¡§wild things¡¨. Miraculously, Max is able to tame them into silence and submission and he even got himself crowned as king. Nevertheless, the boy soon finds himself missing his home and his mother and he returns amidst the rage of those fiends. Soon, he is back in his room with a tray on the table containing some hot supper.
Knussen has created a fantastical and unique sound world for this diptych. While there are references, and even direct quotations, from Mozart, Tchaikowsky, Stravinsky and Mussorgsky, the music is definitely not a mere collage of different styles. It is, instead, remarkably coherent, wonderfully atmospheric and endlessly amusing, with different musical make-ups for the various characters. There is sufficient musical substance here to please those who would prefer to concentrate on the music instead of the drama. On the other hand, although the music is written in a rather avant-garde style, children should also be able to follow the plot and enjoy the fascinating and imagination-provoking soundscape. Indeed, the two works can serve as good introductions to the world of opera for children.
The operas are brilliantly performed by the London Sinfonietta (conducted by the composer himself) and a fine team of vocalists that includes Cynthia Buchan as Jennie and Lisa Saffer as Max (as well as an assortment of roles in the first work). The supporting cast members (Rosemary Hardy, Christopher Gillett, David Wilson-Johnson, Stephen Richardson, Mary King, Quentin Hayes) are vocally superb and extremely vivid and characterful in their enactment of the various funny characters. The enthusiasm of the performers shows in every utterance and musical phrase. Even the packaging of this 2-CD set is a delight. What an enjoyable recording it is!