United States Janáček, The Cunning Little Vixen: Yuval Sharon (director), Walter Robot Studios (animation), Jason Thompson (projection and lighting design), Ann Closs-Farley (costume design and makeup), Christina Waltz (mask design), Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, Robert Porco (director), Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus, Ann Usher (director), Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (conductor), Severance Hall, Cleveland, 20.5.2014 (MSJ)
Janáček: Příhody Lišky Bystroušky (“The Cunning Little Vixen”)
Martina Janková (Vixen)
Alan Held (Forester)
Jennifer Johnson Cano (Fox)
Raymond Aceto (Harašta)
Julie Boulianne (Lapák)
Dashon Burton (Badger / Parson)
David Cangelosi (Mosquito / Schoolmaster)
Sandra Ross (Forester’s Wife / Woodpecker)
Samantha Gossard (Rooster / Owl)
Brian Keith Johnson (Pásek)
Marian Vogel (Mrs. Pásek / Chief Hen / Blue Jay)
Laura Schupbach (Cricket / Frog / Pepík)
Miranda Scholl (Grasshopper / Frantík)
“Is it real or is it a fairy tale?” the Forester sings toward the end of Leoš Janacek’s deliciously charming opera The Cunning Little Vixen. In this composer’s hands, the answer is clearly both. And the Cleveland Orchestra’s ingenious semi-staged concert production of the work with animation projects its deep magic better than any fully-staged version ever could.
Though long beloved for its delightful music, The Cunning Little Vixen has always been a troublesome piece to stage, as Janáček gleefully based the piece on a popular Czech comic strip without making any practical considerations about how to stage human and animal interactions. The result has often been pantomime-like costumes which encumber the singers and give the whole opera the flavor of a children’s puppet show, which it definitely isn’t. For all its cartoony elements, it is the work of a composer attuned to the cycles of life and rhythms of nature. Even nearly ninety years after its premiere, the piece can still startle with its frank depictions of life, sex, and death, but its sense of wonder includes an awareness of nature’s darker side.
Since the characters first came to life in a comic strip, it was a brilliant idea to return the piece to its roots with this specially commissioned animation by Bill Barminski and Christopher Louie of Walter Robot Studios. The animations were projected on three connected large screens, behind and above a small acting stage which was itself behind the orchestra, which was thrust out on a tiered forestage. But the projection screens were actually outfitted with two large doors and several small face-holes hidden in them. At times, the animated characters would pause in a position onscreen, one of the small holes would open, and the singer’s face, often wearing a stylized animal mask, would poke through the hole to perform. At other times, the characters would step out of the larger doors and emerge in full costume on the small stage above and behind the orchestra. There was constant interaction between live action and the stylishly blocky digital animation. Finally, issues of realism could be set aside so that the work could play as light-hearted, lovable fairy tale, while simultaneously the music, acting, and singing plumbed the depths of the metaphors on parade.
Though intentionally cartoony, the animation was expressive and able to slip in more lyrical moments as needed. It also contributed to the quirky humor of the production, showing Lapák, the Forester’s dog, attempting to hump the Vixen’s leg at one point, or humans lounging at the inn and watching another animation—on the animated TV on one side of the animated scene. Best of all was during the curtain call when conductor Franz Welser-Möst disappeared from down in front while the singers appeared to take their bows. Suddenly the lights dimmed and a skinny but elegant animated conductor trotted across the screen, stopping at one of the face-holes, where the real Welser-Möst popped his head out for a roaring ovation.
The distinguished conductor was indeed at his finest. For all its charm, humor, and grace, this score is neither easy to play nor to sing. Welser-Möst coordinated it all with a sure hand, and the players of the Cleveland Orchestra clearly relished this foray into unfamiliar territory. It was a joy to hear Janáček’s jagged but jaunty writing played with such crystalline finesse.
The singers, freed of bulky costumes, emphasized the interactions between characters, bringing the work to tremendous life. Martina Janková was outstanding as the Vixen, playing the part alternately wide-eyed with innocence and then sly, matching the moods vocally. Jennifer Johnson Cano was rightly bold as the Fox, courting the Vixen aggressively, but then blending gorgeously when they sang in duet. Alan Held held sway as the Forester, fleshing out this human character using a range of emotions from mischievous to ultimately resigned to nature’s unstoppable cycles. Toward the end, as the Forester accepts his place in those cycles, Held’s vocal shadings were breathtaking. Raymond Aceto brought poignancy to the role of the love-struck poultry dealer Harašta, while Dashon Burton scored many laughs while still singing handsomely as both the Badger and the Parson. All of the various smaller animal roles were brought off with great zest, and Yuval Sharon’s stage direction was a wonder of clever ingenuity that still somehow never forgot the depths of the rambling stories being told.
The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and the Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus popped in at various times all over the auditorium, singing the Czech language (and in a rural Moravian dialect) with a fetching combination of beautiful sound and contagious spirit. The children, in particular, sang with unbridled joy.
Validating the dream held in the 1930s by then-music director Artur Rodzinski of regularly bringing opera to Severance Hall, this production was a triumph for the Cleveland Orchestra. The event of the season, it will play for two more performances, on Thursday, May 22, and Saturday afternoon, May 24.
Mark Sebastian Jordan