Composer: Leos Janacek
Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Director: Doug Fitch
Vixen: Isabel Bayrakdarian
Fox: Marie Lenormand
Forester: Alan Opie
After bracing myself through a viscerally powerful Jenufa at the Washington National Opera a few years ago and an engaging but still depressing From the House of Dead at the Met last season, I figured that to have opera and Janacek in the same sentence could never mean anything but gloom and suffering. So when I first heard the title The Cunning Little Vixen connected to a staged opera performance by the New York Philharmonic, I immediately thought of a cross between Calamity Jane and a Playboy Bunny blazing her way through the Avery Fisher Hall stage to her unavoidable, spectacular doom.
Well, not quite! After a quick look at the program’s notes, I learned that this opera was in fact inspired by a series of comic strips featuring wild and farm animals, including the cunning little vixen, and a few humans too. It is therefore light-hearted, occasionally downright funny, with even a few smart-ass social commentaries thrown in for good measure. However, Janacek being Janacek, he of course had to inject a sad turn of event straight out the opera tradition into the proceedings. Luckily, it would have taken much more than that to spoil the enjoyable evening.
Stepping into the Avery Fisher concert hall last Thursday evening was a unique and dazzling experience when suddenly faced with the stage turned into a magical forest thanks to an amazing backdrop of sky-high, enormous, resplendent sunflowers. Other props discreetly contributed to the bucolic environment, and soon enough splendidly dressed singers and dancers started making their appearance as the forest’s numerous inhabitants and villagers.
Since it is an opera, there was of course plenty of music and singing. The vixen’s cycle of life and her many adventures offer plenty of opportunities for snappy little vignettes, and Janacek was totally game to musically support his main character’s shenanigans with an overall delightful score full of cheerful, earthy melodies and light exotic touches.
In the title role, soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and her luscious tail were as cute as can be, and her flexible voice was perfectly suited for to her part. Whether mischievous, coy or angry, her little vixen was the quintessential irresistible heroine everybody loves to root for. As her paramour, mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand was a charming Fox, but I’m afraid I will never get used to trouser roles. No matter how talented the singers were, to my ears the Fox and his Vixen ended up sounding like a couple of frisky lesbians (BTW: Kudos to Governor Cuomo for decisively putting one more nail into the coffin of bigotry and steadily supporting human rights, giving me one more reason to be a proud New Yorker).
Back at the Avery Fisher Hall, the rest of the cast, including the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus, fulfilled their human and animal parts with remarkable enthusiasm, and the New York Philharmonic orchestra sounded like they were having a good old time as well under the steady baton of Alan Gilbert. The whole production was obviously meant to be a fun crowd-pleaser for a lovely summer night, and that is just what it turned out to be.