This is the first recording of an unknown work – a full-length children’s opera commissioned by NBC TV in the wake of the success of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. Griffelkin, Foss’s second opera, was first broadcast in 1955 and staged at Tanglewood the following year. In the detailed CD booklet, which contains the libretto in three languages, Steven Ledbetter reports that Foss said Griffelkin was the work he most wanted to hear for his 80th birthday – this is the response.All Foss’s operas are early works – Griffelkin; the two-act Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1950: available on NPT in the US); and the nine-minute mini-opera Introductions and Goodbyes, with a libretto by Menotti (1960: available on CRI). This means they operate within the neo-classical style Foss developed at that time, exemplified by the two piano concertos. In operatic terms, Griffelkin is in the tradition of The Rake’s Progress of five years earlier and Mozart. But there is no reason why Stravinsky should monopolise neo-classicism – look at polished examples by Piston or Lennox Berkeley, or Hindemith, Foss’s teacher at Tanglewood.
Griffelkin is based on a story told to Foss as a child by his mother. Act 1 opens in Hell’s Nursery where the Grandmother devil catalogues the mischief required of young devils. Griffelkin is in a special position since he has come of age and his reward is to be sent to the world with a bottle of magic liquid to play tricks.
Act 2 finds Griffelkin in a town square. He brings a statue to life, confronts a talking mailbox and is made fun of by a group of children. To demonstrate his power he brings two stone lions to life and meets the Girl who is worried about her sick mother. When Griffelkin tells the Girl’s mother that he is a devil she calls a policeman. Meanwhile he brings the toys in a shop to life but he is soon being chased by everyone. Griffelkin freezes people temporarily with his magic and thoroughly enjoys the chaos.
Act 3 opens at night and Griffelkin finds the Girl and the Boy inconsolable since their mother has died. Griffelkin has one magic dose left and uses it to bring her back to life. When he sees the children’s relief he sheds a human tear but at midnight is back in hell and in serious trouble for the crime of doing a good deed. His punishment is to be sent to the world as a human being. But it all works out well since the Boy and Girl remember his first appearance simply as a bad dream and they ask him to live with them. Finally they all sing happily: ‘What a strange, round world, full of magical surprises’.
The cast is well balanced. Contralto Marion Dry (Grandmother Devil) delivers a devils’ credo as a sparkling parody of Mozart’s C major Piano Sonata, which gives her some angular twists vocally. Kendra Colton, one of six sopranos, is boyishly charming as Griffelkin. There are catchy tunes but also moments, such as when the shopkeeper is turned to stone, where the word-setting fails to respond and sometimes parts of the text essential to the story are obscured. But this is a revival well worth having.