Animation and Live Action Combine in a Cunning Little Vixen Revival

United StatesUnited States Janáček, The Cunning Little Vixen: Soloists, Cleveland Orchestra Chamber Chorus/Lisa Wong (acting director), Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus/Ann Usher (director), Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor), Severance Hall, Cleveland, 26.9.2017. (MSJ)

The Cleveland Orchestra revival of 'The Cunning Little Vixen' (Photo courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra, copyright Roger Mastroianni)
The Cleveland Orchestra revival of The Cunning Little Vixen (c) Roger Mastroianni

Vixen – Martina Janková
Forester – Alan Held
Fox – Jennifer Johnson Cano
Harašta – Andrew Foster-Williams
Lapák – Daryl Freedman
Badger/Parson – Dashon Burton
Mosquito/Schoolmaster – David Cangelosi
Forester’s Wife/Woodpecker – Sandra Ross
Rooster/Owl – Clarissa Lyons
Pásek – Brian Keith Johnson
Mrs. Pásek/Chief Hen/Blue Jay – Marian Vogel
Cricket/Frog/Pepík – Caroline Bergan
Grasshopper/Frantík – Miranda Scholl

Director – Yuval Sharon
Animation – Walter Robert Studios
Projection and lighting design – Jason Thompson
Costume design – Ann Closs-Farley
Mask design – Christina Waltz
Makeup design – Amy Jean Wright
Revival production director – Casey Kringlen

In 2014, the Cleveland Orchestra debuted their custom-made production of Leos Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen. Much of what I wrote in my review then still applies, since most of the major players returned for this revival, so this article is an expansion of those comments and further reflection on the concept.

In the 1930s, the orchestra’s second music director, Artur Rodzinski, wanted to stage operas in Severance Hall as part of the ensemble’s regular season, but soon found that full productions were expensive, and further inhibited by a less-than-spacious stage area. Though others toyed with the idea over the years, and previous director Christoph von Dohnányi had some success with concert performances and semi-staged operas, one of Franz Welser-Möst’s great triumphs has been making opera a regular part of the orchestra’s activities.

Part of what makes such activities possible is creative staging. Last spring saw the debut of an ingenious and often magical production of Debussy’s morose Pelleas et Melisande. The success of that—and this one—lies in unconventional, highly imaginative staging that is minimal and economical, allowing for easy revival later on.

This cyclical concept has been extended to several basic-repertory orchestra works, which Welser-Möst has programmed in periodic one-off concerts (as opposed to the typical two-or-three-concert series usually encountered in the United States). Favorites can be brought out for a run with minimal brush-up rehearsal, allowing more spontaneity, plus more rehearsal time required by less familiar fare.

This was an approach pioneered by Erich Leinsdorf with the Boston Symphony in the 1960s, only he didn’t remain there long enough as music director for the system to take root. In Cleveland, it has, giving Welser-Möst a flexibility in programming that has done the seemingly impossible, raising the Cleveland Orchestra’s standards even higher. The conductor had some severe critics in his early years with the ensemble, and his distinctive and unpredictable sense of style can still draw fire, but at this point, no one can deny that he has been a great caretaker and refiner, not just of this orchestra’s sound, but of its programming.

This Janáček revival blends digital animation with live action, to capture the spirit of this playful-yet-serious opera better than any pantomime-style production ever could. Revival director Casey Kringlen found a few new ways to tweak things, but remained true to the original, and the digital animation by Walter Robert Studios remains a joy of stylish wonder. The staging is the same as it was in 2014: Projected animations line up with doors in the screen where singers would pop through to sing the character’s part, sometimes emerging in full costume on stage for key moments.

This time, the biggest difference was the part of the poultry-keeper, Harašta, played by newcomer Andrew Foster-Williams more colorfully than Raymond Aceto did in 2014. The emphasis wasn’t wrong, just different, and certainly as valid as the inflection brought by Martina Janková as the Vixen, Alan Held as the Forester, and Jennifer Johnson Cano as the Fox. Dashon Burton was once again humorously imposing yet grand as the Badger/Parson. David Cangelosi brought a piercing sting as the Mosquito/Schoolmaster, and newcomer Daryl Freedman scored points as the Forester’s hapless dog, Lapák. The Cleveland Orchestra Chamber Chorus and Children’s Chorus all lifted the inspiration level further.

While not always pristine, the orchestra brought clarity and security to Janáček’s score that is rarely heard. Using rhythms and shapes of human language, Janáček created a new orchestral vocabulary that was so innovative that close to a century later, it still sounds contemporary. Welser-Möst had the measure of this complicated yet disarmingly direct music, and led a richly satisfying presentation.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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