A celebration of Oliver Knussen's 60th birthday is the first thematic strand in this summer's Aldeburgh festival. Knussen, a former artistic director of the festival, features as both conductor and composer, and the programme opened with a new staging by director and video artist Netia Jones of his operatic double bill based upon Maurice Sendak's children's classics, Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!.
Few operas can be more tightly bound up with the visual images of the stories that inspired them than these. The only staging of the double bill previously seen in Britain, Glyndebourne's original 1984 production, was designed by Sendak himself. That brought the illustrations from his books so vividly alive that it's hard to imagine a version that did not put Max in his wolf suit to sail to the island of the Wild Things, or have a plausible Sealyham dog as Jennie, the heroine of Higglety Pigglety Pop!, who believes there must be more to life than having everything.
Jones has understood this perfectly, and having discussed her productions with Sendak a few months before his death, she has utterly faithful to his visual world, while animating it in a perfectly judged, gently witty way. So Claire Booth's Max in Wild Things, and Lucy Schaufer's Jennie in Higglety confront the other characters in their personal odysseys as screen images, while their roles are sung from off stage; the synchronising of live performer and video is wonderfully accomplished. Only a couple of glosses, such as making a connection between the Wild Things and characters in Max's life at home, seem a rather obvious and unnecessary distraction.
But what emerges so forcefully in hearing these one-acters again is the formal elegance of both works – Wild Things is a through-composed work; the more varied, psychologically complex Higglety a number opera divided into set-piece arias and ensembles – and the dazzling imagination of Knussen's sound world. With its vast range of stylistic references, there is not a note out of place. The performances are outstanding, with Booth and Schaufer tirelessly superb, and singers such as Graeme Danby, Graeme Broadbent and Christopher Lemmings doubling roles across the two operas. Both pieces are superbly conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth, and so thrillingly played by the Britten Sinfonia, that one can easily the forgive the moments, in Wild Things especially, where the text becomes impossible to decipher.
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