And then there is the beautiful lake itself of the same name, the
nearby charming town of Mayville, and the less charming Jamestown, which is
nonetheless the birthplace of Lucille Ball and has given itself over to All
Things Lucy, including two Lucy-Desi “museums.”
But checking out the opera was my top priority here and “The Cunning
Little Vixen” did not disappoint, offering high quality lyric drama for
about fifty bucks, less than half the cost of the best seats at other well
known American summer festivals. Like those other festivals, Chautauqua has
an established young artists program to help train singers as they embark on
a career. Based on the quality of this summer’s ensemble, the future of
opera is quite secure.
From this group of Apprentice Artists, kudos must go to Ryan Kuster, whose
solid bass was deployed in outstanding service to his portrayal of the
conflicted “Father Aloysius;” pleasant lyric tenor Vernon Di Carlo who
was by turns self-assured and self-pitying as the “Schoolmaster;” and
most especially the dynamic presence of Seth Carico, whose ringing baritone
gave much pleasure as “Hypolit Harast,” aka the poacher.
Indeed, all of the minor roles were well taken with the three
“Sunflowers” very well sung by Maria Fasciano, Lee Heinz, and Jennifer
Hsiung. Amanda Tarver had personality, poise and a sound (slightly howling)
take on “Lapaf, the Forester’s Dog.” All of the “Hens”-too-
numerous-to-mention were charmingly done, laying their eggs comically and
magically without a theatrical hitch, and dying on their backs with legs held
up (very good for the thighs!) as the titular vixen offs them one by one.
But the whole show was cast from strength, starting with Sari Gruber as
“Sharp-Ears, the Vixen.” My past several happy experiences with this
wonderful soprano were now joined by this vibrant portrayal which featured a
cleanly focused sound, ever secure musicality, and a thorough understanding
of the role’s dramatic journey. If I found myself perhaps wanting a more
silvery sheen in the introspective passages and on the floated high notes,
well, small matter. This was a performance that would be welcome on any world
In the all-important courtship scene, she was so ably partnered by the
beautifully limpid singing from Apprentice Artist Elizabeth Pojanowksi
(“Golden Mane, the Fox”) that it seemed a pity Janacek did not give her
more to sing. She already possesses a luminous voice and presence, and she
contributed affecting phrasing which ably complemented Ms. Gruber. While I
did feel that the vocal technique is not yet quite “finished,” time and
experience should ensure a good future for this appealing young mezzo.
This engaging pair was matched, and arguably surpassed by a tremendous
performance from Philip Cokorinos as “Bartos, the Forester.” Mr.
Cokorinos’ rolling, commanding baritone; his heartfelt outpouring of
thoroughly internalized text; and his sympathetic demeanor didn’t just
merely touch me, but rather became the heart of the piece, making the opera
work for me in a way that no previous mounting had.
Ron Kadri’s set design worked much better than it looked. The basic
structure featured a raised upstage platform that spanned the width of the
stage, with a set of rustic stairs to stage level on each side. The rake
allowed for characters to “disappear” in a shallow pit upstage between
the stairs. Wooden cutout trees were tracked to open up the stage or trim it
in, and other simple inserts were flown-rolled-carried in seamlessly as
This was all so functional and appropriate, affording good blocking
opportunities using levels and varied traffic patterns, that I wished that it
had been painted with more care and detail. I just didn’t want it to look
so. . .flat, but rather as fanciful as the clever and (mostly) colorful
costumes by Nancy Leary. A highly important element to the look of the show
was Georgianna Eberhard’s wig and make-up design which was evocative
without being gratuitously over the top.
Mr. Kadri was superbly abetted by lighting designer Christopher Ostrom
especially in such inventions as the large moon revealed by sliding panels up
center, which incorporated a silhouette effect that was particularly
haunting. There were simple gobos and isolated spots throughout that greatly
enhanced the production. The white circular ground cloth to indicate the
winter was augmented by atmospheric lighting and a falling snow, providing
all the ambiance that was required.
Budget considerations may have mandated these scenic solutions, and
certainly there was nothing about this economical design that was
self-indulgent. Nonetheless there were many witty touches. One such example:
the “Vixen,” having killed the chickens and having subsequently displaced
the “Badger” from his lair, tears down the ratty cloth covering his seedy
digs and replaces it with a wildly colorful drape with cartoon images of .
Jay Lesenger, the Artistic and General Director of Chautauqua Opera
directed cleanly, and he was well served by the simple choreography devised
by Maris Battaglia. Generally there were excellent character relationships
developed with well motivated movement that served all the physical action
required by the concise libretto, although there were a few slack lapses when
characters were left standing and the time was not filled meaningfully until
the characters came back to life as they sang again.
I had a little problem with the concept of the “animal” movement.
Remember the classic “Far Side” where the cows are standing upright in a
field until one of them yells “Car!”? The next frame shows them on all
fours chomping hay, assuming a role for the benefit of the passing motorists.
That is sort of how I felt here as the animals sometimes crawled on all
fours, or hippity-hopped in crouching positions with “paws” extended, but
more often than not they just stood up and walked around. I would have
favored more of the latter approach.
Too, for all of the cleanliness of the choreography for the young (grade
school to HS age) animal extras, “cute” was milked a bit too much. Of
necessity, there was a simplicity and repetition in the steps that verged on
being a very well-rehearsed youth dance studio recital, or school pageant.
Still, such touches as having the “Little Foxes” (pace Lillian Hellman)
poke their heads up one by one in turn over the lip of the upstage rake
warmed my heart, and the entire pace of the entrance and exits, and overall
traffic management of this large cast was meticulous.
Conductor Ari Pelto led a taut, rakish, and (at the right times)
sentimental reading of this tricky score in a sanctioned orchestral
arrangement by Jonathon Dove for nineteen players that features only six
strings, winds and brass, percussion, accordion and synthesizer. This was a
very interesting sound, bordering at times on Kurt Weill. What it gained in
bite and tension, it sacrificed in lyric power for the soaring themes, and
dramatic punctuation for scene endings. Indeed, the final stinging notes of
the night were tamer than required.
The pared-down version also makes even more demands than usual on what is
now a group of soloists. While the players were called upon for virtuoso
playing and mostly met that call, there were a few spots of smudgy phrases in
the exposed strings and some slightly dodgy overall intonation especially in
the block chords periodically assigned to the horns/trombone. I must mention
however, that it was extremely hot, which would certainly have further
challenged these fine instrumentalists.
This production marked the stage premiere of the English translation by
David Pountney. The excellent diction by all made a good case for this
colloquial, hip, irreverent, and accessible stage version.
Overall then, how delightful to encounter such an enjoyable festival
experience, and to find renewed joy in a familiar piece with Chautauqua
Opera’s high quality mounting of “The Cunning Little Vixen,” cunningly
staged and winningly performed.