Oliver Knussen's crazy, wonderful "Where the Wild Things Are" is as crazy as ever, but it has just gotten more wonderful. Written in collaboration with Maurice Sendak, who created the classic illustrated children's book, the British composer's opera has had many Sendak-designed productions over the last three decades, including one by Los Angeles Opera. But cumbersome costumes tend to tame wild things.
Now the Los Angeles Philharmonic, as busy reinventing opera as it is everything else to do with the orchestral concert experience, has gone in with two U.K. presenters, the Aldeburgh Festival and the Barbican, to commission a whole new approach to "Wild Things" from animator and director Netia Jones. That production had its U.S. premiere at Walt Disney Concert Hall Thursday night in an energetic, effervescent performance conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.
For the program, which opened with Ravel's ballet "Mother Goose" also staged and animated by Jones and repeated three times over the weekend, a movie screen the length of the stage was situated behind the orchestra. In front of the screen was a platform on which "Wild Things" singers could stand and interact with the animated Wild Things.
Part of stage right was taken up by two more screens shaped as a large book. On them were projected shadows of the real "Wild Things" singers, dressed not as Sendak's monsters but as goofy characters. Some audience seats in the orchestra were also commandeered by the production team for its computer gear, since all the animation is handled in real time.
The animation itself is a beautifully luminous and lovely realization of the now iconic drawings by Sendak, who died earlier this year. Movements on screen are often subtle, sometimes just the movement of the Wild Things' eyes. Those creatures dwarf the boy Max, who conjures them and their realm after throwing a fit and being sent to his room without supper.
These monsters were weird, creepy, terrifying yet oddly comforting and cute. They spout a made-up language just this side of Yiddish. They were, Sendak has said, his relatives. "Where the Wild Things Are" is an essentially subversive children's book, one that dredges up the author's neurotic insecurities.
Knussen's score has more in common with Alban Berg's "Wozzeck" than it does with "Hansel and Gretel." It comes on so strong at first that it takes some getting used to — a few people walked out Thursday shortly after the beginning.
The orchestral writing is thick and loud. Max is sung by a soprano, and even one as commanding as Claire Booth can under the best of circumstances be hard pressed to be heard over it. Since Booth was behind the orchestra she was amplified, and that took some getting used to as well. But the opera is also full of great delicacy in atmospheric sections, and they were especially well played, with Dudamel emphasizing texture over clarity.
Susan Bickley's Mama and the amusing five Wild Thing singers were all individuals. And that meant there were all the more levels to take in: live performers, animation and all the complexities of the orchestra score. In other words, this is the ideal realization of an opera meant to remind adults of how confusing it can be to be a child.
Ravel's "Mother Goose" thus makes an odd partner with "Wild Things" in that the French composer so elegantly idealized childhood. And Dudamel idealized Ravel, bringing out everything in it that is gorgeous in a leisurely performance that relished every detail as would a child engrossed in every lick of an ice cream cone.
Jones, though, kept the fat content somewhat in check. She projected excerpts from Charles Perrault's text and took her inspiration from black-and-white illustrations by Gustave Doré. Next to the orchestra and under the backdrop of a large book, she seated eight adorable children being read to by a nurse.
The stage business and projections were understated, tasteful, not distracting and, I thought while watching them, not really necessary. But they did in fact serve a purpose. Just when you might have thought it safe to conjure up fanciful memories of childhood, "Wild Things" was unleashed.
I hope the L.A. Phil has plans to also mount Jones' production of Knussen's other Sendak opera, "Higglety Pigglety Pop!" Perhaps when the composer finally finishes the cello concerto he was commissioned to write for the orchestra a few years ago.