Youngsters arrived in droves for the Boston premiere of Tobias Picker’s Fantastic Mr. Fox in Sunday afternoon’s Jordan Hall collaboration among the Boston Modern Opera Project, Odyssey Opera, and the Boston Children’s Chorus (Anthony Trecek-King, director). Albeit scrubbed of the assassination, murder, or suicide that characterizes the rest of the composer’s work in the genre, Fox is not an inevitable children’s opera. Based on Roald Dahl’s eponymous children’s book, Picker’s music and libretto pick up on many of the tragic autobiographical notes that crept into the original story. Dahl’s tale was written at the end of a difficult period in which he was overcoming a number of personal challenges—the death of his daughter Olivia Twenty, the injury of his son infant son Theo Matthew (struck by a New York cab), and his first wife’s (Patricia Neal) stroke. In response to this, Mr. Fox is the consummate hero—a father and provider who is able to out-think the murderous farmers with his cunning despite grievous injury to himself.
Los Angeles Opera premiered the 1998 setting of Dahl’s story two years after librettist Donald Sturrock and the widow Felicity Dahl approached Picker with the idea of a musical setting. While eschewing some of the darker details of the starvation and desperation in the fox family, Picker’s version nevertheless emphasizes the more adult themes of the book: the farmers’ capitalist lust is keenly balanced against the communal sharing among the animals. Events and characters are also slightly different. In Picker’s take, we are introduced more broadly to other wild beings of from the den—the lonely Ms. Hedgehog (who ultimately finds love with Mr. Porcupine), or hippie philosopher Rita the Rat (who shares her healthy interest in the philosopher “Spine-oza”)—details that fill out the mythology of Mr. Fox’s world.
Musically, Picker’s setting balances Dahl’s charming story with an ear for contemporary music. Initially the show seems to hover between Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Sondheim’s Into the Woods. The music is electrified by the quirky energy that compels both Prokofiev and Sondheim forward. But Mr. Fox quickly shows itself to be more sophisticated than those others: flowing melodic lines in the orchestra underpin a craggy, rapid-fire parlando in the voices. Although this occasionally coalesces into rich arias, duets, and small ensemble pieces, the distinction between spoken-music and set pieces is often blurred. Despite this sophistication, Picker’s setting of the children’s tale maintains vibrant imagery, effectively employing the orchestra as an active member in the drama (in already full and colorful cast of characters) that propels the story forward.
BMOP and Odyssey Opera, both institutions founded and under the leadership of Gil Rose, produced a stirring performance Sunday afternoon. Founded nearly two decades ago, BMOP has found fertile soil in Boston. Mr. Rose’s newer venture, Odyssey Opera, premiered last September with Wagner’s Rienzi to much acclaim and has continued to impress this past summer with a triptych of three lesser-known operas, Korngold’s Die tote Stadt this past September and, most recently with Argento’s Miss Havisham’s Wedding Day and A Water Bird Talk in late November.
The high-paced and thrilling concert mounting of Fantastic Mr. Fox perhaps gave the company a reprieve from full stagings, but getting to hear the first full-orchestra version since its premiere in 1998 (the chamber reduction is more widely produced) more than compensated. Costume design by Tommy Bourgeois (based on those from a previous staging by OPERA San Antonio), props, and simple blocking also added value.
At times I found the constant onslaught exhausting, although it’s unclear whether this is due to Picker’s score or Rose’s leadership; slower, tender moments in the Foxhole as Mrs. Fox frets over Mr. Fox’s ambition, or as Ms. Hedgehog bemoaned her loneliness seemed sacrificed for a faster tempo that seemed eager to move to the next event of the drama. Even serene interludes, such as a meditative, haunting chorus of trees, seemed trampled under the urgent energy. The tale of Mr. Fox outwitting the blood-thirsty farmers out to destroy his family and community was illustrated engrossingly yet with little restraint from an orchestra that seemed to delight in the color and personality inherent in Picker’s score.
Individual performances were consistently strong. John Brancy, in the title role, is a newer voice to Boston audiences, but will certainly become a favorite; his voice is exquisitely controlled to great effect and drama on the stage—no small feat for such a deeply resonant, vibrant baritone. Three foxcubs, played by Abigail Long, Abi Tenenbaum, Zoe Tekeian and Madeleine Kline, who showed a remarkable precision and poise, rounded out the Fox family. Krista River as Mrs. Fox displayed warm, radiant tone, pairing nicely with Brancy throughout. The humorous outings of the three plotting farmers Baggis, Bunce, and Bean, by Andrew Craig Brown, Edwin Vega, and Gabriel Preisser, were additional highlights. Smaller roles were also memorabl: Andrey Nemzer’s clarion countertenor (which dips into a surprisingly expansive baritone in his lower range) was delightful as Agnes the Digger; Elizabeth Futral’s coloratura soprano found its home in Miss Hedgehog’s wails of grief.
Altogether an exciting read for young and old alike.