Picker’s “Mr. Fox” proves less than fantastic at Odyssey Opera

December 8, 2014 at 5:29 pm

By Angelo Mao

Elizabeth Futral as Miss Hedgehog and Krista River as Mrs. Fox in Tobias Picker’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” presented by Odyssey Opera. Photo: Kathy Wittman

Odyssey Opera and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project teamed together for an fitfully amusing but overall lukewarm romp in Tobias Picker’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. The hourlong, one-act piece was presented in concert format Sunday at  New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. Perhaps Picker’s piece needed a full staging to work: there were wonderful flashes, but the whole wasn’t quite the sum of its parts.

Picker’s adaptation of Roald Dahl premiered in Los Angeles in 1998, resurfaced in reduced form a few times in Britain, and appeared this year in San Antonio, in full production, and now in Boston, in concert form. Dahl’s story is about the war between the eponymous Mr. Fox and the three farmers from whom he regularly thieves. Tired of being robbed, the farmers attempt to catch Mr. Fox by digging into his burrow with the help of a fearsome digging machine called Agnes. Mr. Fox, however, outsmarts his foes by tunneling to their farms. The farmers, we are told, never smarten up to the ruse, and are still waiting for Mr. Fox to emerge from his damaged burrow.

Picker’s version, with libretto by Donald Sturrock, seemingly couldn’t resist the temptation to complicate Dahl’s story. There are now in-depth caricatures for several forest animals—a philosophical rat, the spinster hedgehog. There’s a geriatric romance for some of the forest animals, and what appears to be a lesbian romance between two farm machines.

The casualty of this too-clever adaptation is our sympathy for and interest in Mr. Fox and his family. Mr. Fox gets a moment to remark on his zest for life, and Mrs. Fox manages a few lines lamenting her destroyed burrow, but, on the whole, there is scant reason to care about them or their adventures.

Picker’s music is equally wide-ranging, but, fortunately, much more inspired. Highlights include a haunting, liturgical chorus for the trees, sung by the Boston Children’s Chorus, and a jazzy, tango-inspired final love duet. The instrumental interludes describing offstage events were gems of evoking action with music alone. The ensemble numbers, on the other hand, seemed to lack direction, despite brimming with energy. Picker produced some truly exceptional music for Agnes the Digger. Gil Rose is to be commended for not hesitating to frighten the many restless children in the audience with Agnes’s apocalyptic brass motif.

Odyssey Opera assembled an ensemble cast that, though lacking standouts, was consistently fine. Baritone John Brancy was a nimble and fine-voiced Mr. Fox. Mezzo-soprano Krista River was an understated but sympathetic Mrs. Fox. Bass-baritone Andrew Craig Brown, baritone Gabriel Preisser, and tenor Edwin Vega played the three inimical farmers with zest.

Countertenor Andrey Nemzer was a memorable, cross-dressing Agnes the Digger, and Gail Novak Mosites brought Mavis the Tractor to life with a soprano that attacked the altitudinous part with zeal. Elizabeth Futral supplied a comedic dose of diva-esque melodrama as Miss Hedgehog, while Tynan Davis turned in a thoughtful performance as Rita the Rat. The playful costumes, an import from Opera San Antonio, also deserve to be commended, although perhaps if a full staging had been supplied as well, the result would have likely been more satisfactory.

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