Opera has done much during the past few decades to shed its elite, high-art credentials. In many ways, children's opera ticks all the right boxes in terms of accessibility, communication and participation, yet it's a genre that remains somewhat neglected. The American composer Tobias Picker's adaptation of Roald Dahl's novel Fantastic Mr Fox could change all that.
Premiered in 1998 and produced on several occasions since then, this recording is set to bring this engaging work to a wider audience. In fact, Picker insists in the booklet notes that Fantastic Mr. Fox is not directed at children per se but is in fact a 'family' opera: like those animation films by Pixar, it operates on different levels for both children and adults. For the most part Fantastic Mr Fox succeeds.
The story itself, to a libretto by Donald Sturrock, is straightforward enough. Three farmers called Bunce, Boggis and Bean seek revenge on Mr Fox and his family for their constant pillaging of chickens, geese and cider. Gluttony drives Bunce and Boggis to hunt down Mr Fox while greed motivates Bean. Thwarted and frustrated by the clever fox's tactics, Bean hires Agnes the Digger to root him out. While Agnes and Bean's rapacious quest to hunt down Mr Fox only serves to pillage the countryside itself, Mr Fox et al take cover in a nearby forest before joining forces with other creaturely friends to enact their own sweet revenge on the three villainous miscreants.
It's a story that operates on several levels. The animals display 'human' traits - love, care, compassion and conside ration for one another- while the humans come across as being either plain stupid or cold and calculating. Picker's colourful, direct neo-tonal style works well in this respect. Themes are adapted to support the narrative rather than serving to illustrate character types. Perhaps inevitably, Picker's melodic lines at times evoke Pem· and the Wolf, although Stravinsky is the most obvious stylistic reference point - more middle-period neoclassical than the one heard in Renard. Boston Children's Chorus do well to tackle some intricate highvaulting lines, while Boston Modern Orchestra Project add vivid splashes of colour and rhythmic drive to the score. There are some truly tender moments, too, such as Mrs Fox's caring aria in Act I scene 2, performed with depth and conviction by mezzo Krista River, or the love duet in Act 3 between Porcupine and Miss Hedgehog. In those moments it's easy to forget that this is a fable and not true to life, and much of the credit has to go to the music itself.