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Leoš Janáček
23 Jun 2011

The Cunning Little Vixen, New York

One of Richard Wagner’s most enduring contributions to music history is a concept known as gesamtkunstwerk.

Leoš Janáček: The Cunning Little Vixen

Click here for cast and other information relating to this production.

Above: Leoš Janáček


In Wagner’s day, the idea that the operatic experience should be the sum of all its parts was revolutionary. Today, the conception of opera as a total theatrical experience is de rigeur, and as a consequence, is at the heart of the revival of New York’s classical music scene. This is evident in the figures of Alan Gilbert and Peter Gelb, who recently took hold of the helms of the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera, respectively.

The past two years have seen the presentation of two fully staged operas at the Philharmonic. In both cases, the choice of repertoire has been less than conventional. This year, Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen continues what seems to be an auspicious tradition begun by Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre.

Gilbert has stated that his main reason for presenting such unfamiliar repertoire is his desire to demonstrate the prowess of the Philharmonic orchestra, as opposed to solely the singers. However, both The Cunning Little Vixen and Le Grand Macabre were treated in such a way that depicted these works not only as great music but also as great theater. Furthermore, Gilbert can congratulate himself on the large number of young people who have attended these performances.

The Philharmonic’s Cunning Little Vixen is certainly a star-studded event. The well-known Grammy-winning soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian is the eponymous heroine. The production is directed by Doug Fitch, who directed Le Grand Macabre to great acclaim. However, the true star of the evening was Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic.

As usual, Gilbert proved himself to be adroit in handling both dynamics and textures. Additionally, he frequently highlighted the rhythmic pulse behind the music. This was especially apt as folk melodies served as inspiration for much Eastern European music.

As the opera progressed, Gilbert also managed to expose the audience to similarities between Janáček and Puccini as well as Richard Strauss . As Janáček was influenced by Puccini, this was especially relevant. Still, it must be acknowledged that in his zeal to show off the Philharmonic in all its glory, there were times when the Tim Burtonesque nature of the score seemed to suffer. However, those moments were few and fleeting.

As Sharp Ears, Miss Bayrakdarian conceived the vixen as the type of strong, independent heroine opera audiences have come to know and love. Her portrayal pointed at a central facet of the opera, which has endeared it to audiences through the decades. Despite its short duration, Janáček’s music depicts the vixen at all stages of life and growth. The audience gets the chance to see a character grow not just physically, but emotionally, and mature into adulthood. Miss Bayrakdarian’s performance was dynamic and demonstrates all facets of this deceptively simple yet complex character.

Miss Bayrakdarian’s voice has a smooth silvery quality to it. This is thrilling to experience in performance. Unfortunately, her diction and ability to project left much to be desired. It was very difficult to hear her in the back row. What is more unfortunate is that this problem was symptomatic of most women in the cast. That said, there were many wonderful performances. Kelley O’Connor, as the dog Lapák, demonstrated the extent of her rich mezzo voice. Her lovelorn howls added a tragicomic element to the character, which served to great effect. Marie Lenormand portrayed the fox as a boyish bon vivant who was at the same time charming.

In terms of diction, the men fared much better. As the Forester, Alan Opie gave a nuanced portrayal. He brought pathos to his closing aria, which drew parallels between the despair of the human characters and the felicity and fulfillment of their animal counterparts. Also, his stentorian voice was a joy to listen to.

However, there was a confusing inconsistency in the portrayal of his character. The Forester is supposed to protect the animals from poachers. This seemed at odds with his harsh treatment of the vixen. As the poultry dealer, Joshua Bloom sang lyrically and brought nonchalance to the role.

Doug Fitch, who directed the production, presented the opera in an imaginative and eco-friendly light. Many of the costumes were made of recycled objects. The beetle costume, for instance, was made out of a garbage can. More importantly, they used Avery Fisher Hall as a performance space. An extension was put onto the proscenium, which allowed the singers to sing from the middle of the orchestra.

Performers also entered and exited through the auditorium’s center aisle, as opposed to solely on stage. To aid in this aspect, the lights were used to create the illusion of sun shining through treetops on the center aisle. Additionally, the English translation was immensely funny and full of jokes that appealed to kids and adults alike. Perhaps more important, however, was the fact that the translation fit the music.

Despite occasional flaws, the New York Philharmonic can congratulate itself on concluding its season in grand style. The fact that the auditorium was nearly full attests to the success of Gilbert’s initiative, yet there is another goal that is also being met in this production. The Cunning Little Vixen has not been seen in New York in twenty years, perhaps not since Beverly Sills commissioned a production of it for City Opera. That this opera is part of the standard repertory is not to be disputed, but the fact remains, it does not have the reputation it should. It can only be hoped that the Philharmonic’s imaginative production brings this opera one step closer to garnering more popularity.

Gregory Moomjy

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