It is not unusual to come across ‘site specific’ or ‘promenade’ performances in either the worlds of theatre or opera today. There does, however, still seem something novel about spending an afternoon experiencing an outdoor, site specific, promenade performance of a children’s opera based upon a much loved Roald Dahl story.
Tobias Picker’s adaptation of the classic tale, which sees Mr Fox, his family and all the woodland creatures thwart three farmers’ attempts to kill them, was first performed in Los Angeles in 1998, although Holland Park now witnesses the world premiere of this particular version.
Taking place behind the main tented area on the Yucca lawn (being billed as Opera Holland Park’s ‘fringe’ venue), adults and children alike are invited by sprites to take their seats on the ground next to a small orchestra. Over the next hour they are ushered from scene to scene, with sprites and stewards doing a good job of moving everyone relatively swiftly, and the orchestra (superbly conducted by Tim Murray) constantly reconvening in different areas to play for the next section. The sets are exquisite (the fox’s burrow, in particular, feels an affinity with its setting), and a wander around afterwards reveals just what attention to detail has gone into constructing them.
The music is highly accessible to children, without ever feeling patronising towards them. For this reason it seems perfectly suited to giving youngsters their first taste of an operatic experience, while adults should also find much within the notes to take an interest in. The score does not contain catchy melodies, and much of the music feels very minimalist with the fox cubs chanting ‘Boggis, Bunce and Bean, one short, one fat, one lean’. There were occasions when I was reminded of Harrison Birtwistle, but there are also moments of melancholic lyricism and spirituality as the sprites sing ‘Who knows what trees hear?’ The farmers’ first song, on the other hand, feels reminiscent thematically, if not musically, of a Gilbert and Sullivan trio.
The costumes are also clever. The performers are not dressed from head to toe as their respective animal, but wear clothes that make the characters and emotions still feel very human. The foxes have ears and bushy tails, the hedgehog is a fur-clad spinster and the mole has whiskers sprouting from his thick rimmed glasses. Even the digger is played by a singing human (Laura Woods) with black and yellow stripes covering her face and triangular shaped costume.
From among the strong cast, Olivia Ray stands out for the sweetness of her voice and the sensitivity of her portrayal of Mrs Fox. Other fine turns come from Hannah Pedley as the maverick rat and Henry Grant Kerswell, Peter Kent and John Lofthouse as the three oddball, angst-ridden farmers. The only disappointment is that the central character of Mr Fox fails to stand out as much as he should, given the proclamation that he is the cleverest, most fantastic creature in the wood. This, however, is no reflection on Grant Doyle’s excellent performance, but rather on the fact that there is so much to catch our attention throughout that it is impossible for any one character to constantly hold it. That this is the case, however, is surely a virtue rather than a criticism of the piece.
Fantastic Mr Fox is to be highly recommended as a children’s opera, especially since the tickets are so reasonably priced. If you take your family, however, you should enjoy the experience as much as the youngsters, and if you are thinking of going without any little ones in tow, I would certainly not try to put you off.