Tobias Picker's operas have had a varied reception in major venues, with Emmeline (Santa Fe, 1996) and An American Tragedy (Met, 2005) having more initial success than Therese Raquin (Dallas, 2001) and Dolores Claiborne (San Francisco, 2013). Fantastic Mr. Fox was premiered by Los Angeles Opera in 1998, with a cast including Gerald Finley, Jill Grove and Charles Castronovo. Styled by the composer as a 'family' rather than a 'children's' opera, it is based on Roald Dahl's 1970 novel about a fox family contending with evil chicken farmers and their machines; the libretto is by Donald Sturrock, the Dahl Foundation's artistic director. Reviews were not kind following the premiere, nor were they when a reduced version (for seven instruments) appeared at Holland Park (2010), nor when English Touring Opera staged a fuller orchestral version the following year. Of the ETO show Andrew Porter wrote that 'the score itself is not something I much admire: deft, agreeable neo-Classical prattle, no memorable tunes ' (May 2011, pp. 580-1). There's some creditably lyrical orchestral music, but the stylistically scattershot vocal numbers don't express much character and the libretto flirts too much with tweeness.
This recording, made in 2014 but only now released, makes what case can be made for Mr Fox. Gil Rose, the gifted founder of both Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Odyssey Opera, conducts around 50 sparky players, the brass especially eloquent. The strong cast brings sharp diction and musicality to their roles. The splendidly sonorous, word-sensitive John Brancy is well suited to the testingly high-ranging music Finley created. The Frankfurt-based tenor Theo Lebow, who as a child created the cub Lennie (four children sing the fox cubs), assumes Porcupinal duties here, with Elizabeth Futral touching as Miss Hedgehog, with whom he pairs off. The high tenor Jonathan Blalock impresses as Burrowing Mole. The countertenor Andrey Nemzer takes on Jill Groves's mezzo role of the Digger with spectacular clarity, and the fulsome bass Andrew Craig Brown is a roundly hateful Farmer Boggis.