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Cynthia Buchan – Jennie (HPP); Lisa Saffer – Potted Plant/Mother Goose (HPP), Max (WWA); Rosemary Hardy – Rhoda (HPP); Mary King – Mama (WWA); Christopher Gillett, Quentin Hayes, David Wilson-Johnson, Stephen Richardson
London Sinfonietta
Oliver Knussen
Deutsche Grammophon 469 556-2
2 CDs, £££
Immaculate performances, captivating humour...a must for children of all ages!

The television premiere of Where the Wild Things Are, some years ago, marked a turning point in my life; before then, I had little time for modern opera, having sat through too many excruciating performances of too many excruciating works. I wasn't happy about having to watch this either, but having been a fan of Maurice Sendak's books, I thought I would give it a go. And I was surprised…there were none of the expected "Walking In the Air" numbers (after all, the film of Raymond Briggs' The Snowman was still popular), no sordid Mein Herz schwimmt mit Blut plots, just a simple storyline imbued with Knussen's individual and rather attractive style. Both CDs are a delight. Orchestrations are quintessentially Knussen's and, although one cannot help but notice the odd touch of Ravel, there remains a simplicity in both that is remarkably child-like. Take the boisterousness of Where the Wild Things Are as an example: the plot might be less interesting than Higglety, and the shrill arias that seem to surround Max's character do tend to grate at times, but there is a chaotic, surreal quality, very much a reflection of the characteristics of Sendak's book, that makes the opera an enchanting experience.

Performances, made following stage productions, are immaculate and an underlying sense of humour is apparent throughout; I have to admit to wondering if this would emerge properly without the help of the hugely amusing costumery and stage action, but I was wrong: the nonsense-roaring Wild Things, the Ash Tree in Higglety are all larger-than-life and, although comic in their intention, there remains, as the books portray, something sinister and disturbing about them. It perhaps would be wrong to single out anyone for particular attention, since little can be faulted, but both Buchan as Jennie and Saffer as Max carry their roles off in a believable (if I dare use that term for fantasy opera) manner with a remarkable presence and precision. Supporting cast members are no less impressive: Stephen Richardson, a Wizard of Oz-like lion with a touch of menace but a bucket-load of pathos, brings his role to life superbly, and Gillett as the high voice of the Ash Tree neither under- nor over-plays his part, balancing his role very finely between humour and absurdity. Under Knussen's baton the London Sinfonietta is magical, displaying not only a translucence and flexibility, but a sense of occasion. If they seem to have had as much fun as the cast, and even if this is only half the enjoyment I felt on listening to the performances, then that singles this release out as one of the most exciting of the year. A must for children of all ages!

Sophie Baker  

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