Desperately searching for a kind word for “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” the dismal baggage given its ludicrously overhyped world premiere by the Los Angeles Opera at the Music Center, the mind eventually pounces upon a single possibility: at least it’s short.
Not short enough, however. Around Roald Dahl’s terse and pungent children’s fable — wily fox bests stupid farmers and feasts on their fowl — librettist/director Donald Sturrock has festooned a suffocating overlay of stage cuteness and sent it bouncing around the Music Center stage. His woodland animals, drastically fleshed out beyond Dahl’s meager pages, are now endowed not only with songs to sing but with neuroses to sing about: Miss Hedgehog is a man-hungry spinster; Rita the Rat a gabbling, Spinoza-quoting yenta. Even the farmers’ murderous tools, the digger and tractor that gobble away the foxes’ hillside lair, get to sing; If truth be known, they steal the show.
There isn’t that much worth stealing, however. Composer Tobias Picker has gained a spot at a respectable midpoint on the artistic spectrum; his tidy output of correct and trustworthy orchestral pieces cleverly tied to scenic and literary references — much of it recorded — assures the timid hearer that new music means us no harm. His first opera, the 1996 “Emmeline” currently in the repertory of the New York City Opera, furthers that assurance with a rudimentary mastery of the expressive gadgetry if not the spirit of romantic melodrama.
Why, then, the abject mess of “Fantastic Mr. Fox?” The problems start with the talky jabberwocky of Sturrock’s libretto, which Picker has set as aimless, tuneless singsong whose rhythms clash with, and eventually obliterate, the shape of the narrative.
The busy orchestration engulfs the bland, formless up-and-down vocal lines, often rendering them virtually inaudible. Adults with mature neck muscles can fill in the missing words from the supertitles high above the Music Center stage; children shouldn’t have to.
It all could have worked, on some primitive level at least. Cartoonist Gerald Scarfe’s designs have redeemed more than one production in L.A. Opera annals; his animal masks, his steam-snorting tractor and a monstrous earth-digger fresh out of “Jurassic Park” — deployed on a revolving unit set reminiscent of Breughel’s Babel — at least beguile the eye as the ear is beset with sensory deprivation.
As the put-upon but ultimately triumphant Mr. and Mrs. Fox, baritone Gerald Finley and mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzman resound eloquently through the surrounding orchestral murk.
On the strength of his first opera, the 44-year-old Picker has ridden to some level of fame, hailed — surely out of wishful thinking — as American opera’s latest new hope, currently at work on three further commissions, including one from the Metropolitan Opera. OK, but the problems raised in his latest score are basic and dire. They have to do with competence in the combining of words and music in an art greater than either of its parts. Without that magic combo, all the hype in the world cannot make an opera come to life. Mr. Fox, alas, lies dead in its tracks.