By Diane Windeler
SAN ANTONIO – There were those who questioned the wisdom of launching a brand-new opera company in a brand-new concert hall with a children’s opera. That was before the Sept. 23 performance of Tobias Picker’s Fantastic Mr. Fox by the fledgling Opera San Antonio in the intimate Carlos Alvarez Studio Theatre of the just-opened Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.
All that head-scratching was put to rest thanks to strong production values and a talented, dynamic young cast that captured the cross-generational appeal of the Roald Dahl novel on which the opera is based. Like such Dahl children’s stories as the telekinetic Matilda, or the creepy kids in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, its humor is never saccharine and is balanced against the dark and dangerous aspects of life.
Clearly, this is a serious company, whose stated goal of “bringing the finest productions, singers and designs to its audiences,” just might hold up. Picker, who is the company’s artistic director, wrote the piece with librettist and Dahl biographer Donald Sturrock in 1998 for the Los Angeles Opera, where it received mixed reviews. It lay dormant for a dozen years until it was revamped for chamber orchestra and then honed further to a seven-piece ensemble. Both were successfully presented by a pair of English companies. The smaller one was the version presented here, using strings, winds, percussion, and piano.
The tale concerns a fun-loving, chicken-snatching fox (baritone John Brancy) who must take drastic measures to defend his family and friends from a trio of infuriated farmers who are determined to destroy him and his pals for their fowl thievery. The humans are rotund chicken farmer Boggis (bass-baritone Andrew Craig Brown), goose breeder and gastronome Bunce (tenor Edwin Vega), and lean, mean Bean (baritone Gabriel Preisser), who owns apple orchards and makes cider.
The farmers hide near the hilltop fox den and when Mr. Fox emerges, they shoot off a source of great pride: his beautiful, bushy tail. Mortified, he is certain no one will ever respect him again. Clever Mrs. Fox (mezzo-soprano Renée Rapier) and their four cubs (members of the Children’s Chorus of San Antonio) soothe and reassure him. Soon, he joins with a badger (baritone John Dooley) and a mole (tenor Jonathan Blalock) to plan ways to escape and ultimately thwart the humans.
Meanwhile, the farmers have added farm machinery to expedite burrow excavation. The earth-mover Agnes the Digger may be the weirdest, angriest operatic character since Alberich. Sung by countertenor (and recent Operalia award-winner) Andrey Nemzer in butchy drag, she growls and sputters to wide-ranging, angular music. Mavis the Tractor (soprano Gail Novak Mosites) is her eager companion.
Picker’s score is an evocative gemischt of styles and references built on a handsome, spikily tonal framework. The vocal writing is effective, although it brims with far-flung, ear-challenging intervals that sometimes scuttle the words and prompt awkward breaths. Perhaps the strongest solo aria is that of Rita the Rat (mezzo-soprano Tynan Davis), whose klezmer-tinged music seemed appropriate on the eve of Rosh Hashanah as she lamented that rats are always persecuted and never understood. The most lyrical, haunting aria is offered by Miss Hedgehog (soprano Elizabeth Futral), expressing her fear of inevitable spinsterhood.
There are some delightful ensembles as well, highlighted by the fox family’s jubilant opening sextet, and later the goose-stepping farmer trio extolling the joys of goose paté. Here, Picker uses “Rule, Brittania” as a reference. Another favorite is the moment near the finale when Miss Hedgehog is introduced to the dashing Mr. Porcupine (tenor Theo Lebow). It’s love at first sight, of course, spurred along by a very sensuous Astor Piazzolla-like tango.
The production was staged with humor and efficiency by Erica Olden, co-founding director of Pittsburgh’s Microscopic Opera Company, which presented Mr. Fox in 2011. Andres Cladera, company resident conductor and co-founding director of Microscopic Opera Company, led members of the San Antonio Symphony in a deft performance. The whimsical, imaginatively detailed costumes and set designs were created by London-based illustrator Emily Carew Woodard.
Opera in San Antonio has had a decidedly mixed history since its glory days between the mid-1940s and late 1970s, when it was presented under the aegis of the San Antonio Symphony. For economic reasons, that relationship was severed in 1983 and various companies have come and gone. (See “San Antonio Opera Starts Life with Vow of Freshness.” )
With this excellent production, the promise of a Salome with Patricia Racette in January, and a double bill featuring Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci in March, the inaugural season of Opera San Antonio is looking good. Fingers crossed.
Diane Windeler is an independent San Antonio-based writer who was classical music critic for the San Antonio Light for 11 years before its demise in 1993. Later, she covered music and theater for 13 years as a freelancer for the San Antonio Express-News. She now contributes to the website incidentlight.com.