Just one UK performance for this staging of Oliver Knussen’s family opera – arguably the finest of all such pieces – following its Russian premiere by Shadwell Opera.
Knussen – whose death last year at the age of 66 was a major loss – struggled to finish his fastidiously crafted works. The first of his two operas based on illustrated children’s books by Maurice Sendak (also the work’s librettist) had its belated premiere in complete form by Glyndebourne Touring Opera at the National Theatre in 1984; it deserves more frequent revivals than it has thus far received.
An audience including many kids engaged effortlessly with Jack Furness’s simple but effective production, in which the substantial Shadwell Orchestra under the secure leadership of conductor Finnegan Downie Dear remained on stage throughout: earlier they had performed Ravel’s Mother Goose suite, with Furness supplying brief spoken introductions to each of the fairy-tales on which it is based.
Readers may be familiar with the Wild Things scenario, in which archetypal naughty boy Max (irrepressible soprano Rhian Lois) is sent to bed without his supper by his long-suffering Mama (determined mezzo Kate Howden), and soon afterwards encounters the even more unruly and outlandishly costumed creatures whom he eventually tames.
As cautionary tales go the result is surprisingly user-friendly, connecting easily to the child within us all. As a composer, meanwhile, Knussen achieves the rare trick of writing something which is highly sophisticated and at the same time immediate.
Delivered by a highly energetic group of principals, Furness’s production – with sweeties and balloons (literally) thrown in – was unalloyed fun.