Birtwistle, Ades, Turnage, Benjamin – when people reel off their list of living British opera composers, they seldom mention Oliver Knussen, which is strange.
Knussen may be parsimonious in his productivity - only acknowledging thirty-five works in a 45-year composing career – but in his operatic settings of Maurice Sendak’s children’s fantasies Where the Wild Things Are (1983) and its semi-sequel Higglety Pigglety Pop! (1985) he created timeless classics. Sendak himself designed the Glyndebourne premiere of this double bill, but those wanting to restage it have mostly had to put up with concert performances, as Sendak’s exquisitely charming drawings (which are as much the essence of the operas as the music is) have proved impossible to replicate - until now.
Enter the virtuoso director/designer Netia Jones with a wonderfully elegant solution: live casts led by two brilliant singer-actors, Claire Booth and Lucy Schaufer, who interact with back-projections of Sendak’s drawings which Jones animates in real time. Thus does wicked little wolf-suited Max perpetrate his tricks on the looming Wild Things, while Jennie the Sealyham terrier sets off on her crazy adventures through forests and across seas. Booth kicks a drawn door which slams shut, Schaufer creates a cross-hatched lion and puts her head in its mouth, and conjures up a life-size technicolor toy theatre: this is not so much surrealism as the heightened reality of the child’s-eye view. Sendak had the joy of knowing this production would happen, but died a month before its premiere; after this Aldeburgh outing it will get two further performances at the Barbican on November 3 as part of a weekend devoted to Knussen’s oeuvre. And if Jones’s stagings take the breath away, so does the perfection of their meld with the music, as performed by the Britten Sinfonia under Ryan Wigglesworth’s incisive direction.
There are differences between these scores, but what they share is a playfully allusive wit and a bright translucence as the musical ideas morph intricately: Knussen’s highly-coloured sound-world is an invigorating place to be. And to see this great bear-like figure go on to conduct the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in works by Ives, Berg, Stravinsky, and Goehr – composers he has long championed - before receiving the Outstanding Musician award from the Critics’ Circle, was to realise that at last he may be getting his due.