Neither the Boston Modern Orchestra Project nor Odyssey Opera is well known for its children’s programming, so it was a particular pleasure to see the dozens of pint-size opera-goers filing into Jordan Hall excitedly on Sunday afternoon. The occasion was Tobias Picker’s family opera, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” with a libretto by Donald Sturrock adapted from the story by Roald Dahl.
Dahl’s classic fable pits a sticky-fingered fox against three evil farmers — Boggis, Bunce, and Bean — who are out to turn him into stew meat, or some similar fate. In operatic form, the caricature is broad and the charm even broader.
That said, the opera is not quite a slam-dunk for young children, especially those who can’t read supertitles. The creators’ refusal to condescend to the youngest listeners is admirable, especially as reflected in the score itself. But surely there’s a middle ground between dumbing down a libretto and asking 5-year-olds to parse lines like “spinsterhood beckons and destiny reckons.”
Still, if plenty of adult cleverness passed them by, most of the kids on Sunday sat in rapt attention. This was a concert performance, but it was also visually transformed by the delightful costumes of Emily Carew Woodard, conceived for a production at Opera San Antonio (of which Picker is the artistic director). So Mr. Fox, a character with no shortage of vulpine vanity, here cuts a fancifully dapper figure, clad in a resplendent jacket — single vented, of course, to make room for his well-coiffed tail. Likewise, Agnes the Digger, another visual standout, was charismatically sinister in a red box-like costume with shovel attached, bouncing with every move.
Picker’s score deftly weaves together a wide swath of styles, calling to mind at different moments influences as varied as “Peter and the Wolf,” “The Rake’s Progress,” “Mahagonny,” klezmer music, and the Broadway stage. The vocal writing quickly telegraphs the essence of a character, as when Mrs. Fox, in music brimming with domestic warmth, gently chides her husband to be careful before leaving on his farmyard raid.
Most animals get a solo turn in the spotlight. The opera adds to Dahl’s original some late-blooming porcupine-hedgehog love (“She’s prickly bliss!”). But the score’s splashes of Jewish folk flavoring may actually raise a few eyebrows as they arrive in an aria sung by a rat who quotes Spinoza. (In an interview, Picker has stated that he was here trying to reclaim notorious Nazi propaganda imagery by making his Semitic rodent one of the opera’s heroines.)
Sunday’s performance sparkled under Gil Rose’s baton, save a few stretches in which the composer’s writing for brass turns murky. This cast was strong from foxhole to farmyard, the roster sensibly stacked with singers who had performed this season in the San Antonio production. Among them was John Brancy, in nimble and vivid voice as Mr. Fox, and Elizabeth Futral, whose Miss Hedgehog nearly walked away with the show.
Krista River’s tenderly sung Mrs. Fox was the warm anchor of the family den. Andrew Craig Brown, Edwin Vega, and Gabriel Preisser nimbly portrayed the cartoonish trio of farmers. Tynan Davis shone as Rita the Rat, and Andrey Nemzer and Gail Novak Mosites, as Agnes the Digger and Mavis the Tractor, respectively, made more of their vehicular roles than one might have thought possible. Special mention goes to Sunday’s delightful foxcubs (Abigail Long, Abi Tenebaum, Zoe Tekeian, Madeline Kline) and the well-prepared members of the Boston Children’s Chorus (Anthony Trecek-King, director), which provided a coolly solemn interlude as a chorus of trees, waxing wise about the antics of those zany humans and animals playing out below.