New York’s Cunning Little Vixen (Second Opinion)

01/07/2011

Janáček, The Cunning Little Vixen : Soloists, New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt (conductor), Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus, Anthony Piccolo (conductor), Alan Gilbert (conductor), New York Philharmonic, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 25.6.2011 (BH)

Janáček : Příhody Lišky Bystroušky (The Cunning Little Vixen) (1922-1923)

Alan Gilbert, Conductor
Doug Fitch, Director
Karole Armitage, Choreographer
Edouard Getaz, Producer
Production created by Giants Are Small
G.W. Mercier and Doug Fitch, Scenic Design
Clifton Taylor, Lighting Design
Doug Fitch, Costume Design
Cookie Jordan, Make-Up Design

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
Vixe n: 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

New York Choral Artists
Joseph Flummerfelt, Director
Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus
Anthony Piccolo, Director

 

Isabel Bayrakdarian as Vixen (far left) with the hens . (Photo by Chris Lee)

Alan Gilbert continues to breathe new life into the New York Philharmonic’s programming, and here made a magnificent call to end the season with a staged version of Leoš Janáček’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen. Gilbert’s collaborator was the brilliant Doug Fitch, whose team at Giants Are Small created last year’s surreal circus for Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre – which showed up on many “best of 2010” lists. Here Fitch eschewed the Tim Burton-esque animations used there in favor of fanciful giant sunflowers transforming the back of the stage, and for the enormous cast, dozens of amusing, evocative costumes. A stage extension zigzagged through the main floor, bringing many of the singers in close proximity to the audience. Janáček’s life force – felt so powerfully in the score – was never too far from the minds of those in the packed house.

Janáček wrote his opera after seeing a Brno newspaper, Lidové noviny (The People’s Paper), with drawings by Stanislav Lolek of a vixen, forest animals and a handful of humans. The vixen grows up in the care of a Forester, interacts with various barnyard and forest animals, and falls in love with a fox, before meeting a sudden demise, and then the life cycle begins all over again.

The folk-tinged music – slightly tangy and filled with vivid orchestral passages – shows the composer at his most evocative, as members of the animal world interact both with each other and with human beings. With Gilbert showing an obvious love for the score, the Philharmonic musicians clearly relished the chance to dive into unfamiliar territory. High points included the orchestra’s violins navigating the composer’s treacherously high shimmers, and the woodwind section’s magnificent solos. One could have closed the eyes, were there not a feast waiting for them.

As Sharp-Ears, Isabel Bayrakdarian offered a frisky, athletic performance completely in character – whether sidling up to a fox, slinking around a hen house or prancing around mocking a hunter – and maintained an ironic twinkle in her voice during the entire evening. Marie Lenormand won over many in the audience with her richly sung take on the Fox, and her sassy characterization; her courtship of Sharp-Ears was both amusing and touching. Alan Opie gave a warm-hearted reading of the Forester, and when Joshua Bloom appeared in Act III as Harašta, his stirring tone made many sit up and take notice. Wilbur Pauley made a charming Badger, swaggering onstage in stripes – both on his face (one of Cookie Jordan’s witty make-up designs) and on a floor-length fur.

Other stand-outs in the large ensemble included Emalie Savoy as a strutting Foghorn Leghorn-style chicken, Devon Guthrie as his main hen, Melissa Parks (memorable in the Ligeti) as the Forester’s stuffy wife, Keith Jameson as an amusing mosquito (and Schoolmaster) and Kelley O’Connor, with perky charm, flopping around as Lapák the dog. Members of the New York Choral Artists, mute until late in the opera, added a warm humanity.

As a significant chunk of the cast, members of the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus were fancifully costumed as animals – a cricket, grasshopper, frog, butterfly, chipmunk and others were among Fitch’s many delights – and they sounded wonderful (when children can sometimes sound chirpy). My sole hesitation with the evening was with some of the stage business, which relied a bit too much on groups jumping up and down; things seemed too busy, too often. Granted, the opera has long stretches of orchestral music, which present a directorial challenge when none of the characters is singing. Perhaps a larger stage might have helped solve the dilemma, but in any case, a few calmly composed set pieces might have provided some visual resting places. (The forest isn’t always teeming with activity.)

But the over-arching admiration for Gilbert and his season-ending climax won out. The reimagination of the New York Philharmonic continues apace, and if the audience reaction to this treat was any indication, its conductor and musicians are on a roll – remarkably by taking “the road less traveled.”

Bruce Hodges

Stan Metzger reviewed the same production on opening night here.

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