Knussen - Higglety Pigglety Pop! · Where the Wild Things Are / Buchan · Saffer · Hardy · Wilson-Johnson · London Sinfonietta · Knussen
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Knussen: Higglety, Pigglety, Pop! & Where the Wild Things are
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Maurice Sendak's children's books have won thanks from countless parents whose bedtime reading chores were turned to adult delights. Set to the adventurous music of Oliver Knussen, they'll appeal to lovers of sophisticated fantasy works like Ravel's L'Enfant et les sortileges. Higglety Pigglety Pop! is about Jennie, a dog who has everything except experience, which she finds in the mouth of a lion and then goes on to become a stage star. It's full of delightful orchestral sonorities and at least one conventional aria, Jennie's "Now I have nothing." The opera is swift and amusing, with the juicy role of Jenny done to perfection by Cynthia Buchan. Where the Wild Things Are is a wonderful romp about Max, the naughty boy whose room turns into a sea over which he travels to the island where the wild things crown him king before he escapes home to Mom and his favorite soup. The orchestra here carries the load, with extended interludes that include an evocative nocturnal journey and a dazzling wild rumpus by Max and the wild things (the name's a natural for a rock group). Performances are definitive under the composer-conductor's leadership. Vivid sound, too. Packaging includes a cardboard pop-up foldout album instead of a jewelcase. --Dan Davis
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Higglety Pigglety Pop! was written in 1985 (and revised in 1999) and lasts for a little more than an hour - without a single dull movement. Structurally, it is the more traditional of the two works here, with clearly defined arias and ensembles, and while the vocal writing is relatively modernistic, the melodies are always gorgeously singable (despite being atonal - Jennie's opening aria, for instance, is instantly memorable and beautiful). Indeed I can think of few works that are overall as stimulating, vivid and viscerally effective as this one. Is it a children's opera? Well, in the way Ravel's L'enfant is, I guess. In other words not really, but I am pretty confident that this exciting, evocative and colorful work can be enjoyed by people of all ages.
Where the Wild Things Are dates from 1983, and is of course set to a relatively familiar story (not the least due to the recent film). But regardless of how good the original children's book or movie might be, the opera is in a different league altogether. This is a fantastic fantastical work, well made for the stage but most notable for the utterly electrifying music. This is a score of explosive flourishes, exhilarating wild rides and overall stunning impact, a kaleidoscope of colors and fireworks, animated, visceral and thoroughly inventive and imaginative. As in Higglety Pigglety Pop! Knussen's skills as an orchestrator are put to full use and to electrifying effect.
Two unqualified masterpieces then, and they are superbly performed; Lisa Saffer is fabulous in Wild Things and Cynthia Buchan outstanding in Higglety. The supporting cast is just as exceptional, and the whole set of musical fireworks is guided with the assured hand of the composer himself and realized with dizzying brilliance and flair by the London Sinfonietta. The recording is demonstration quality. In short, this is an absolutely essential disc - regardless of whether you think you like new music or not (and, really, whether you are a Sendak fan or not). I can't think of any more exciting, vibrant and atmospheric music composed the last thirty years.
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!