in: Reviews

August 17, 2012

Olly’s Opera and Castiglioni’s Icy Winter


Stephan Asbury leads Knussen’s Higglity Pigglity Pop (Hilary Scott photo)

Along with several programs of chamber music and an occasional solo recital, Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music normally has two concerts that are, to one degree or another, orchestral programs. One of these is normally for chamber orchestra, the other (the final culminating program) for full orchestra. This year, the second-to-last program last Sunday evening called for one chamber-orchestra piece, Niccolò Castiglioni’s Inverno In-Ver, specified as being “for small orchestra,” here conducted by Oliver Knussen, the prime mover of the 2012 festival, followed by a much larger work, Knussen’s opera Higglety-Pigglety-Pop, with a libretto by Maurice Sendak based on his own book of that title, conducted by Stefan Asbury.

This year’s FCM was, for me, a time of discovery when it came to Castigloni, whose music I can’t recall ever having heard before, at least not live, and I was delighted with each of the works performed here. Inverno In-Ver suggests a kind of modern-day rethinking of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons — or, at least, of the last concerto in that work, since the title can be translated “Winter, in truth.”  The chamber orchestra required for the piece is highly colored by the presence of mallet instruments, harp, piano, and celesta, which lend a crystalline, icy sonority to the piece. The score is made up of 11 short movements, each bearing a title — some pictorial: “Ice flowers,” “The stream,” “The frozen lake,” others evocative of mood: “first [or second] dirge,” “Silence”). Each of the short movements has a specific character and color, which particularly suited the 1973 score for transformation into a ballet in 1978. The variety of moods made the 24-minute piece a marvel of constant reinvention, a shimmering delight in a performance that was both freely expressive and tightly controlled.

Since 2012 was the year of Oliver Knussen’s 60th birthday and also, sadly, the year of Maurice Sendak’s death, it was an entirely suitable time to mound a performance of what is probably Knussen’s largest work (he is mostly known for miniatures), his opera Higglety-Pigglety-Pop!, or There Must Be More to Life, with a libretto by Sendak, based on his book of the same title.  The event was billed as a “concert performance with supertitles,” and it certainly was that. The six excellent vocal soloists, in symbolic elements representing costumes rather than traditional concert dress, stood in front of the orchestra; and two electronic screens to the right and left projected the text.  But the performance had more than that, because there also was an extremely clever video representation of the action of the opera by Netia Jones, which made the fantasy elements of the story far more explicit than they would have been simply from a stand-and-deliver singing performance or even, perhaps, from a fully mounted production. This is particularly the case because the opera’s characters are not only animals (a dog, a cat, a lion, a pig) but also normally inanimate objects (a potted plant, an ash tree).  The animation clarifies these characters effectively.

The hero of the opera was Sendak’s dog Jennie, who at the time of the original planning for the opera was approaching the last stage of canine old age. Sendak writes that Jennie’s
“all-consuming passion was food,” and this passion is evident in the opera as well, to the nth degree. But Jennie asks the philosophical question, “Is that all there is?” She recognizes that she has everything but still wants to find and experience more. At first this “appetite for everything” appears to refer merely to more food (including things that might seem hardly edible — a new way of thinking of actors who “chew the scenery”!) But over the course of the opera, which lasts just under an hour, it becomes clear that “everything” goes beyond the elements of physical well-being to include, especially, the participation in and enjoyment of art. In the end, after much searching and many varied experiences, some pleasantly gustatory, some risky, Jennie learns that the personages she has encountered are actors in the World Mother Goose Theatre, of which she is about to become the leading lady. Her physical hunger has been transformed into a passion for artistic expression, exemplified in the new production, just about to start, of the opera Higglety Pigglety Pop! , the performance of which begins as the curtain falls.

The orchestral part of the Knussen/Sendak opera is elaborate and colorful, just as is that of their earlier opera, Where the Wild Things Are. (Actually, composer and author began working on Higglety first, but interrupted its completion on being commissioned to compose Wild Things for Brussels. After the successful mounting of that opera, they received another commission, fulfilled with this work.) Knussen describes the main musical difference between the two works by saying that Wild Things was a “big thank you” to all the music he loved listening to as a child, while Higglety, written after extended experience in the theater, reflected the music that he wanted to write at that age.

Stefan Asbury paced these elaborate forces with precision and a good balance between the singers and the instrumentalists. The singers’ parts make considerable demands in range and also (for that reason) in diction, especially crucial for an opera in English sung to an English-speaking audience. (Supertitles are useful for reference where the textural interplay becomes complex or a particularly long-held syllable makes it a challenge to catch the words, but having to rely on the supertitles to comprehend everything about an opera in one’s own language is a bore.) Happily the lyrics were clearly sung and the voices projected well. Soprano Kate Jackman had the major role of Jennie, which carries the essence of the plot. Sopranos Ilana Zarankin (Potted Plant/Baby/Mother Goose) and Sharon Harms (Rhoda/Baby’s Mother) subtly differentiated their characters. Tenor Zach Finkelstein was a sly Cat-Milkman and also the philosophical Ash Tree, a much briefer part. Bass-Baritone Richard Ollarsaba was the fearsome Lion, whose threatened bite loses its frightfulness when Jennie guesses (by accident) the Baby’s name. Bass-Baritone Douglas Williams was the portly Pig in sandwich boards.

The complexity of the part for the substantial orchestra, and the sometimes wide-ranging vocal parts that put major demands on the singers, make Higglety Pigglety Pop! a work that benefits from the opportunity to hear it more than once, partly to follow the fantastic twists and turns of the plot and partly to enjoy the color and rhythm and line of Knussen’s ensemble. Even so, the single performance in Ozawa Hall, with these exceptionally ready singers, the trim and expressive orchestral playing, and the clever and witty animated treatment of Sendak’s drawings, made it a richly satisfying evening.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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