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The Cunning Little Vixen
Joshua Rosenblum | Opera News | 23 June 2011

Who would have guessed that two women dressed in fox costumes, whose courtship involves the gift of a dead rabbit, and whose spur-of-the-moment wedding ceremony is officiated by a woodpecker, would be the romantic opera couple of the year? That's the only way to describe the irresistible spell cast by Isabel Bayrakdarian and Marie Lenormand as, respectively, the happily married Vixen and Fox of Leoš Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen, staged and designed by Doug Fitch, and conducted by the New York Philharmonic's music director, Alan Gilbert, in an English translation by Norman Tucker. Their courtship, which took place not on an opera stage but in Avery Fisher Hall, involves unmistakably human elements of charm, seduction, misunderstanding, pain, vanity and rapture, all of which Bayrakdarian and Lenormand embodied with equal amounts of sincerity and comedy. Both are outstanding vocal artists, but they also proved themselves to be, if one can pardon the expression, true stage animals. The creaturely cavorting seems to come naturally to both women, and the delight they took in their stage shenanigans and invigorating love affair served as a springboard for their glorious vocal flights. Janáček has lavished some of the most opulently passionate music this side of Tristan on their love scene, and when the fantastically costumed woodland animals (pint-sized members of the Metropolitan Opera Children's Chorus) streamed into the clearing to join in the wedding celebration, it put the brilliant finishing touch on Act II of a great romantic musical comedy.

It's not all lighthearted: after all (spoiler alert!), the poor Vixen is shot and killed in Act III by the heartless poacher Harasta (powerfully sung and menacingly acted by Joshua Bloom, who made a showy entrance from the back of the house). But the end of the opera can only be described as uplifting. The last scene belongs to the craggy old Forester, winningly portrayed by the perfectly cast Alan Opie, who sings a narrative aria of nostalgia and regret. And yet, he continues, "I am glad when the sun breaks out." Suddenly, nature comes to life, in the text, the music and the staging, with the reemergence of the frolicking forest inhabitants. At that point, amid the visual and aural splendor, one would be hard-pressed to imagine a more affirmative case for the continuing circle of life.

The Philharmonic's supporting cast was outstanding. The impressive character bass Wilbur Pauley bellowed amusingly and with great diction as the Parson, then later summoned considerable tenderness when singing about a past love. Keith Jameson, as the Schoolmaster (and, earlier, as a gleefully feasting mosquito), displayed appealing vocal vibrancy and a knack for physical comedy. A few cast members had trouble projecting over the enthusiastic playing of the Philharmonic, but the supertitles (subtly displayed behind a blue scrim) made this a minor issue. Melissa Parks was amusingly domineering as the Forester's snobby wife, and Emalie Savoy, as the Cock, made the most of an amusingly protruding chest. Dancer Emily Wagner had a seductive solo ballet turn to a particularly gorgeous musical interlude. Karole Armitage created this dance, as well as the rest of the enchanting critter choreography.

Director/designer Fitch, in conjunction with his co-designer G.W. Mercier, has created a transporting stage backdrop of giant sunflowers, as well as some floor-to-ceiling strips of fabric, representing tree trunks. Clifton Taylor's versatile and evocative lighting completed the pastoral effect. (Fitch designed the costumes, too.) Gilbert's musical command of the proceedings was passionately committed and technically impeccable. Fitch and producer Edouard Getaz, who comprise the group Giants Are Small, also created the universally lauded Le Grand Macabre for the Philharmonic last season; one can only hope for repeated return engagements from this team.