Sendak's `Wild Things' on operatic stage. City Opera pairs it with minor Mozart work

The New York City Opera closed its current season with a double bill of productions - both designed by Maurice Sendak, the noted illustrator who has been devoting an increasing amount of time to the operatic stage. Oliver Knussen's 40-minute opera, based on Sendak's ``Where the Wild Things Are,'' is a delight on all counts. The curtain-raiser, Mozart's ``L'Oca del Cairo,'' or ``The Goose From Cairo,'' is a reconstruction and completion of the kernel of a minor work that remained in fragmentary form at the composer's death.

Sendak's book tells a slim tale of a rebellious tyke, Max, who flies off in his imaginary sailboat to a kingdom beyond the clouds, where the Wild Things are, after being punished for general naughtiness.

Mr. Knussen's seven-year-old opera is something of a latter-day version of Ravel's ``L'Enfant et les sortil`eges,'' with a more mischievous child, and more terrifying yet endearing imaginary beings. Knussen's musical idiom is altogether contemporary in gesture and tone, but also very evocative and whimsical when needed. And there are enchanting quotations - such as the ``Coronation Scene'' from Mussorgsky's ``Boris Godunov,'' when Max crowns himself king of the Wild Things. Knussen's music captures the right mood, quality, and spirit of the Sendak story and the Sendak creatures.

It goes without saying that the sets and costumes are superb - Sendak is one of our finest illustrator/artists. To date, his work for the City Opera - Janacek's ``The Cunning Little Vixen'' and Prokofiev's ``The Love of Three Oranges'' - has been exceptional. ``Wild Things'' makes for a delicious entertainment, visually and musically. Frank Corsaro has staged it with the skill of a true professional and the ingenuous fervor of a childlike viewpoint. It also gives Karen Beardsley a lovely chance to romp and sing as Max, and intermingle with these larger-than-life figures.

The Mozart opera is hardly in the same league. In fact, the few selections that Mozart actually wrote are not top-drawer, and the music added - poached from other Mozart works, from some sketches, and from whole cloth by Virgilio Mortari - is quite substandard. The story, such as it is, involves a goose that foretells the future. Director Corsaro has turned it all into an opera troupe awaiting the arrival of Mozart, who is to hand out the finished parts of the work.

It is tired, trivial stuff, despite Sendak's whimsical designs. When the huge goose finally enters, we wish it would then go away. Instead it turns around and lays, not an egg, but a screaming ``Amadeus'' version of Mozart, complete with juvenile temper tantrums.

The work was done in Italian and sung by an all-American cast, most of whose Italian was not particularly accomplished. Why was it not done in English, even with the supertitles the City Opera uses for all shows now? The singing was not up to the company's norm, despite the presence of several of its more talked-about singers.

Without question, ``Where the Wild Things Are'' is an important addition to the City Opera repertory, and the ``Goose'' is not. When the Knussen can be paired with something more suitable, it will be cause for true celebration.

And what about the season now ended? It was not the sort of lineup that drew me to the State Theater very often, but the evenings are said to have chugged along with some honor. I did catch up with the company's new production of Romberg's ``The Desert Song'' and revivals of Sondheim's ``Sweeney Todd'' and Stravinsky's ``The Rake's Progress.''

The ``Rake,'' designed by the noted British artist David Hockney, was a very handsome production to look at, though Robin Thompson's rendition of the John Cox staging looked quite perfunctory. Jorge Mester's ponderous, rhythmically blurred conducting did not help matters. Nor was this ``Rake'' especially well cast this time around. Only Elizabeth Hynes, as Anne Trulove, managed to make much of an impact on purely vocal grounds. And at least Joyce Castle was a lively, energetic, and very funny Baba the Turk.

Miss Castle also turned in a tour de force performance as Mrs. Lovett in the ``Sweeney Todd'' revival. In fact, she and Timothy Nolen (as Todd) worked so well together that one had to go back to Angela Lansbury and George Hearn on the national tour to find equivalents. I even found Jim Coleman's conducting preferable to any other I have heard in this music.

The production was Hal Prince's pared-down national tour version, sets and all. It remained an engrossing experience.

Unquestionably, ``Desert Song'' deserves a place in this theater. But encouraging the audience to laugh derisively at the theatrical conventions that inspired the piece robbed Romberg's rich melodic muse of final emotional impact.

In the two lead roles, William Parcher and Jane Thorngren managed well enough, but the comic-relief couple - Philip Wm. McKinley and Lillian Graff - stole the show on stage. It was conductor Coleman, however, who was the real star of the evening, giving Romberg's music its due.

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