LENOX — Cricket is depressed. Elephant wants to climb trees. The other animals of the forest try to help them. Sun, though feeling misunderstood, comes out. Cricket throws off — literally, with her gray veil — her depression. The job done after many a change of season, Ant crawls off across the river. Darkness. Curtain.
There's no actual curtain in Ozawa Hall, of course. But that's the story of "The Cricket Recovers," a kids' (?) chamber opera by Richard Ayres, given its American premiere Thursday night by students of the Tanglewood Music Center conducted by Thomas Ades. It made up the lead-off program in Tanglewood's five-day Festival of Contemporary Music.
Imagine Richard Strauss, after three cognacs, doing an operatic take on Dr. Seuss to an orchestration of animal and forest sounds and other creepy, bleepy effects, and you'll have an idea of this endlessly clever, inventive opus. It comes with a kids' imagination grown up.
You didn't have to imagine that this was a great moment in TMC history — it just was that moment, in performance and wisdom and fun. A terrific cast, decked out in animal ears, tails, masks, antennae and what-not, and prancing around the stage, brought the semi-staged fable to happy, funny, all too true life. You could laugh, but you were also laughing at that ridiculous creature the human animal, meaning yourself.
Ayres, a burly, bearded Cornish man who lives in the Netherlands and was present for a bow, took his tale from a book of children's stories by Dutch author Toon Tellegen. The libretto, in English, is by Dutch poet Rozalie Hirs. Blessedly, Tanglewood used supertitles for the text, although the cast of seven was pretty efficient at projecting words into the hall.
"The Cricket Recovers," an hour long in 18 quick-moving scenes, takes its place among such other animal-kingdom operas as Janacek's "The Cunning Little Vixen" and fellow Brit Oliver Knussen's "Where the Wild Things Are," based on the Maurice Sendak tale.
Commissioned by England's Aldeburgh Festival at Ades' suggestion, "Cricket" also takes its place as TMC's second triumph in an American premiere of a noteworthy British opera. Its predecessor was George Benjamin's solemn "Written on Skin," performed in 2013.
"Trees are complicated," Elephant moans, then adds, "but unavoidable." In his floppy ears, he tries and tries in his assault on a tiny tree onstage, failing every time, with the aid of a momentary character named Failing. Sung with comical misery (until he succeeds) by baritone Nathaniel Sullivan, he's a combination of King Babar and Ferdinand the Bull.
As Cricket, soprano Robin Steitz hopped and moped about and brought easy assurance to a florid part that carried her miseries well into soprano stratosphere. Others in the vocally and comically gifted cast were soprano Emily Helenbrook as Vole and Sun, mezzo-soprano Kameryn Lueng as Squirrel, mezzo-soprano Chloe Schaaf as Ant and Owl, tenor Eric Carey as Sparrow and baritone Walter Aldrich as Gallworm (he croaks a song "of fisticuffs and loathing").
Ayres' 21st-century orchestration is a match for Vivaldi's in its colorful, pictorial evocation of the seasons. A sunrise in the orchestra is an amusing echo of Strauss' in his "Alpine Symphony," heard the week before on the same stage. Birds chirp and twitter, storms erupt and, in a scene of grand mayhem, the other animals throw a wild birthday party to try to cheer Cricket up. She mopes on. Ades led an instrumental ensemble fully attuned to the effects of this enchanting score.
Alas, there will be only the one performance of this evening of laughter and empathy. It deserves to be seen and heard by others, plus those who would see and hear it again. It's a joy.