By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
|Photo by Ken Howard|
Tobias Picker, the one acknowledged hand among the many whose music goes wriggling through Mr. Fox's empty spaces, is himself a media masterpiece. "I look out at my trees," he told an interviewer last week, "and I ask them to tell me where my melodies are. I walk through the forest and I hear my melodies." At 44, he has gained a firm toehold for a tidy output of correct and trustworthy compositions, full of everybody's best melodic gadgetry from times gone by, all aimed at assuring the timid that new music means us no harm. His 1996 opera Emmeline, an Oedipus spinoff set in New England, with all the melodramatic gestures that you hear as drama until five minutes later, has been televised and is making the rounds; like André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire of this year's vintage, it draws sustenance from somebody's notion that a Great American Opera should be some kind of cultural inevitability in this not-all-that-opera-minded nation. Picker is currently at work on not one but three opera commissions, including one for the Met.
The problems start with Donald Sturrock's talky-talk libretto, which inundates Roald Dahl's wise little children's fable -- wily fox bests stupid farmers and feasts on their fowl -- with uncute jabberwock of no appeal to any age. (In fairness, there is one line, not in Dahl, but worthy of note: Animals, says Mr. Fox, "have a natural gift for forest life that humans had years ago.") Dahl's woodland critters, their numbers now swelled by the man-hungry spinster Miss Hedgehog and her amorous swain Mr. Porcupine, are obliged to sing for their supper; Dahl's Rat becomes Rita the Rat, a gabbling, Spinoza-quoting yenta. There is also -- I'm not making this up! -- a tractor that sings and puffs steam and a singing earth-digger right out of Jurassic Park. As designed by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe's magic pen, on a revolving set that bears some resemblance to Breughel's Tower of Babel, they're all fun to look at, but that's as far as it goes.
Tobias Picker's trees have led him astray. He has transformed Sturrock's logorrhea into its musical equivalent, a featureless up-and-down singsong in rhythms that often clash with the sound and the sense of the words. His dense, busy orchestration further obliterates these vocal lines, often rendering them virtually inaudible. Adults with mature neck muscles can pick out the missing words from the supertitle screen high overhead; children shouldn't have to. On opening night I detected no attempt from conductor Peter Ash to create any kind of balance between stage and pit.
There is something overall depressing about this latest in our local company's long list of operatic miscalculations. It goes beyond the fact that Tobias Picker, widely hailed as American opera's great new hope, has turned out this inept baggage -- not at all funny beyond its cutesy staging, manifesting not even the minimum competence for combining words and music into a whole greater than its parts -- and now basks in the momentary glory that the Hemmings machine has afforded him. A good cast has given the work better than it deserves. Some of its singers -- Suzanna Guzmán, Louis Lebherz, Jamie Offenbach, Charles Castronovo -- are "resident artists," starting with the company in small roles and moving up. Gerald Finley, the titular Mr. Fox, has had a deserved sky-high career since his debut here in 1994. Grant Peter Hemmings high marks in the matter of attentiveness to emerging talent.
As the company has developed since its 1986 inaugural, there is reason to suspect a split personality. In its middle age, it has lost much of its early, appealing edginess: the Janácek, the Berg, the Alden brothers' inventive stagings. Last season's Fedora, Florencia en el Amazonas and Countess Maritza were novelties in name but creaky antiques in actuality. Next season's I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Bellini's Romeo and Juliet opera) hardly counts as a brave step into the unknown. Nobody was taken in by Mr. Fox; everyone knew all along that management was trying to pass off a kiddie opera as grown-up fare. Even Hansel and Gretel has more substance.
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