Cunningly Good: Janáček, “The Cunning Little Vixen” Performed in New York

June 23, 2011

Janáček, The Cunning Little Vixen: The New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert (Conductor), Doug Fitch (Director), Karole Armitage (Choreographer), New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt (Director), Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus, Anthony Piccolo (Director), Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, New York, 22.6.2011 (SSM)

Cast

Forester: Alan Opie
Forester’s Wife/Owl: Melissa Parks
Schoolmaster/Mosquito: Keith Jameson
Badger/Parson: Wilbur Pauley
Harašta, a poultry dealer: Joshua Bloom
Pásek, an innkeeper: John Kawa
Mrs. Pásková, innkeeper’s wife: Tami Petty
Pepík, the Forester’s grandson: Jennifer Bates
Frantík, Pepík’s friend: Serena Benedetti
Young Vixen: Noah Sadik
Vixen: Isabel Bayrakdarian
Fox: Marie Lenormand
Cricket: Kiki Porter
Grasshopper: John Albert
Frog: Yves Mervin-Leroy
Lapák, a dog: Kelley O’Connor
Cock/Jay: Emalie Savoy
Chocholka, a hen: Devon Guthrie
Woodpecker: Lacey Benter
Hen: Kirsten Kane
Hen: Helen Karloski
Hen: Margarita Martinez
Hen: Erica Powell
Hen: Elena Williamson
Butterfly/ Cricket cover: Jane Albert
Chipmunk/Frog cover: Seth Ewing-Crystal
Hedgehog: Dylan Hamme
Bird Boy: Richard Hausman
Moth/Grasshopper cover: Andrea Morokutti
Beetle: Anthony Pedone
Dragonfly/Young Vixen cover: Neel Najarajan
Rabbit: Sofus Rose
Terynka: Emily Wagner

Cast of The Cunning Little Vixen- Photo by Chris Lee

Magical is the word that comes to mind when describing last night’s opening of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, in the final concerts of Alan Gilbert’s second season with the New York Philharmonic. This simple story needs no videos, no fractal light shows, no robotic scenery. In fact it just might be a rarity these days, a total – or at least nearly total – analog production. It’s hard to imagine what fancy digital devices would add to a work of art so completely self-contained. The libretto and the music (Janáček did the texts as well) are so seamlessly intertwined that at any given moment it would be impossible to determine the source of the work’s affekt.  From the shimmering opening, convincingly conducted by Gilbert, to the insistent and percussive final bars, everything seemed so rightly in place that to change one note might be to change the whole.

Directed by Doug Fitch, the magic began with children imaginatively costumed as insects and animals of the swamp. They accurately captured each being’s idiosyncrasies – the rubbing together of a fly’s legs, the winged movements of the dragonfly, the stinging action of the mosquito. The scenery and costuming avoided anything overly outlandish.

The Avery Fisher Hall stage itself was extended out several rows into the orchestra with a zig-zagged runway allowing access to the aisle.  At one point a fanciful insect ran up the aisle towards the exit, only to be blocked by a man with a cane slowly wending his way. It took a couple of seconds to realize that he wasn’t part of the production.

The children performed their dancing so professionally that it was a joy to see. At one point, after a long dancing interlude, they exited the stage with timing so perfect that the last to leave did so exactly on the music’s final note, no mean feat. The costumes and machinations of the hens in the first act add levity to a work that quickly moves from a poetic opening to a prosaic ending. Up until this point it would seem entirely reasonable to ask why this opera would not be appropriate for children, adding it to the likes of Hansel and Gretel or The Magic Flute, perfect vehicles for parents to use as a tool to expose children to music. But this opera is no Peter and the Wolf. Squeezing life cycles into minutes, Janáček expresses another side of humanity. Here we have seduction disguised as love, marriage as a doomed enterprise, and old age as a time of emptiness.

 

Isabel Bayrakdarin in the title role and Wilbur Pauley as the Badger- Photo by Chris Lee

The same cycle occurs in the animal world. The vixen “Sharp Ears,” acted and sung with a smooth naturalness by Isabel Bayrakdarian, begins life as a spunky kid, and as a member of the Forester’s family, is given the education of being exposed to humans.  As she gets older and wiser, she sheds some of her naïveté, tricking the hens into coming near enough for her to kill them. Ultimately, she falls victim to her pride and the life cycle continues with a new vixen, not very different from the old one.

In addition to Gilbert’s conducting and the orchestra’s vibrant playing, all the singers’ voices fell naturally into the musical whole. While there were no grand arias to help judge their vocal capabilities, none of them pushed their voices unnecessarily. Super-titles were beamed unobtrusively on a curtain above the stage, but the singers’ diction made it almost unneeded. The English translation was modernized but not excessively so.

As to whether the The Cunning Little Vixen will rank with last year’s hit production of Le Grand Macabre - also directed by Fitch – I can’t imagine it being considered as anything other than a cunningly grand success.

Stan Metzger

Additional performances: June 23-25, 2011, www.nyphil.org

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