This updated production by Raphael Mostel of his Travels of Babar is musically and visually engaging. An octet accompanies a recitation of the 1932 novel, the second of Jean de Brunhoff’s picture-books about Babar, the king of the elephants, and his wife Celeste, that have charmed generations. Mostel has added projections of Brunhoff’s watercolor drawings to the forty-six scenes during which he employs various cinematic devices.
The score is mostly melodic, and constructed largely from rather basic elements; indeed, it originally bore the subtitle “An Adventure in Scales” – a device used for the honeymooners’ hot-air balloon as it ascends, or a school of fish with a whale in pursuit. There is much musical interest, including allusions to Bach, Chopin, Stravinsky, the Second Viennese School and Minimalism, and Mostel conjures illustrative sounds – trombone for the elephants’ trumpeting, cello for a rhinoceros’s fury, and many humorous interjections from percussion; whenever Celeste speaks she is accompanied by celesta.
The cleverness of the visual effects contributes strongly to making Travels of Babar a total delight: Babar playing a trumpet, Celeste dancing, and some of the most charming moments come at an alpine resort where the elephants, wearing colorful winter clothing, ski down the mountainside. Finally, after the elephants’ victory over the rhinos – achieved by brain rather than brawn – Babar and Celeste relax with their Old Lady friend as a lovely viola solo accompanies flashbacks of their adventures. Leah Pisar’s reading of the text was superb (there is an in-English text, too) and the full-orchestra version is due at Kennedy Center, Washington DC, next April.