Boston's Jordan Hall was host to a concert version of Tobias Picker's 1998 setting of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox on December 7. A good-sized crowd from very young to older folks had assembled to hear Gil Rose lead his two ensembles, Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Odyssey Opera, in a costumed semi-staged performance of this "family opera". Picker prefers to use this term to describe his morality tale, fearing that "children's opera" is a term frightened with an assumption of "dumbing-down". This serious tale never condescended either musically or dramatically; in fact, it maintained a musical and dramatic arc that worked so well that the young people in the audience seemed riveted for the entire presentation. That the costumes, singers, and players were all top-notch surely helped.
A pre-concert conversation between Picker and fellow composer and writer Robert Kirzinger offered some very useful information. Picker gamely took questions from the audience, several of whom were brave youngsters asking quite serious questions. We learned that Picker had begun composing at age 8 and had always wanted to write operas, having been deeply impressed by the television broadcast of Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors at age 6. He also admitted to having three new operas in preparation. He is clearly a busy man.
The last issue of this magazine carried a comprehensive review by Diane Windeler of the newly-formed San Antonio Opera's first performance of this work, so I'll not repeat the opera's entertaining plot here, but only point out that Mr Fox encounters challenges from three greedy farmers as he hunts for food, and in fact is seriously injured in the process, but by sly cleverness outwits his human nemeses.
Gil Rose led with authority from first note to last. The orchestra responded with freshness and clarity to Picker's often tangy, complex, and colorful music. The vocal soloists - almost all had sung in the Opera San Antonio production in September - were clad in colorful costumes based on drawings by Emily Carew Woodard and executed under the direction of Tommy Bourgeois. Stephanie Williams created the effective facial make-up.
Standout performances were by the rich-voiced baritone John Brancy as Mr Fox and mezzo Krista River as Mrs Fox, who had to learn her role in only three weeks. That she sang and acted this beautifully is a credit to her professionalism and grace under fire. Andrew Craig Brown as Farmer Boggis and Edwin Vega as Farmer Bunce conspired effectively under the hard-cider besotted leadership of mean-spirited Farmer Bean, strongly sung and acted by baritone Gabriel Preisser. Mezzo Tynan Davis's acting and singing as Rita the Rat was ideal, and countertenor Andrey Nemzer was powerful and truly frightening as Agnes the Digger, an angry havoc-wreaking backhoe machine bent on destroying the Fox's cozy burrow. The Boston Children's Choir, prepared by Anthony Track-King, was positively sylvan as forest trees.
Fantastic Mr Fox harbors some very beautiful music. The opening of Act II with its combined sonorities of vibraphone and flutes accompanying the children's chorus as the swaying trees was particularly memorable. Also, the opera has two love duets. The first, between two digging machines, Agnes and her ardent admirer Mavis the Tractor, was energetically sung and acted by Gail Novak Mosites. The second occurs in Act III between the spinsterhood-fearing Miss Hedgehog (Elizabeth Futral) and the splendidly spiky Mr Porcupine (Theo Lebow). The music for both duets was deliciously slippery and almost cheezily charming.
The entire cast and orchestra were to record the work the next day. If all the charm of the Jordan Hall performance is captured in digital form, it is sure to delight listeners of any age.