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A Stunning Little "Fox"
Peter G. Davis | | 24 June 2011

The New York Philharmonic is ending its season June 22-25 in Avery Fisher Hall with an extravagant flourish: four fully staged and costumed performances of Leoš Janácek's animal fantasy "The Cunning Little Vixen." Are such costly adventures now to become an annual tradition at the Philharmonic? Let us pray.

For years, the orchestra has been both welcoming summer and massaging its patrons with lavish concert presentations of popular Broadway musicals from the past. Apparently Alan Gilbert, just completing his second season as music director, thinks the Philharmonic should aim higher than that. Last year he conducted the New York premiere of György Ligeti's daft but frightening opera "Le Grand Macabre," by now a contemporary classic, and sold out the house. Janácek's joyous operatic celebration of the human life cycle looks like it might do the same.

Many will no doubt recall the New York City Opera's production of "The Cunning Little Vixen" from years past, a much admired version featuring Maurice Sendak's endearing, if often enchantingly dangerous, menagerie of animals and humans. The Philharmonic's vision of the piece is no less fanciful but perhaps even more sharp-edged as it tells how the Vixen is captured as a cub by the Forester, how the vivacious creature radicalizes the farm animals, escapes into the forest, dislodges a badger from his den, falls in love with a dashing young fox, raises a family and is finally shot by the poacher Harašta.

Unsparing vignettes of not-so-lovable village folk are interspersed throughout the action, but Janácek treats each as an individual who has his or her rightful place in the picture, part of a grand panorama of life and death in which every sad ending inevitably leads to another hopeful beginning.

The same team that helped to make the Ligeti opera such a success last year returned for "The Vixen": the quaintly named production company Giants Are Small, which created the scenic and costume designs in collaboration with G.W. Mercier and Doug Fitch. Fitch also deftly directs the large cast over a small but eminently serviceable strip of acting space in front of the orchestra in shrewd ways that make a potentially cramped and overpopulated venue seem almost fluid and airy.

Props are simple and variable. A humble rustic tabular structure can magically metamorphose -- thanks mainly to Clifton Taylor's ingenious lighting -- from a doghouse, to a tavern table, to a fox's lair and finally to the slab on which the Vixen dies so poignantly from a gunshot wound. In the background, rows of giant sunflowers bend in benediction over the stage, reminding us of one of the opera's most potent life-renewing symbols. A large, crazy-shaped peasant cloth hangs halfway down from the curtain area on the audience's left, a clever device that serves as a weather indicator and a place for the moon to rise. It's also a convenient spot to project large supertitles, even though the performance uses the familiar Norman Tucker English translation (the original, and much preferable, Czech text is apparently a challenge that even the Philharmonic was not prepared to meet on this occasion).

The costume design is a tour de force by itself, although one wonders if the humans (Schoolmaster, Parson, Innkeeper, et al.) should look quite so goofy. At least the Forester is shown as a decent soul, as befits this mini-Hans Sachs of folk wisdom. The animals, however, could hardly be more delightful, especially the psychedelic giant dragonflies, the cute family of fox cubs, the big fat hens and their pompous cock overlord and the adorable young frog who hops up on the Forester's lap in the last scene. "I know you," exclaims the Forester to the frog. "No, that was my granddad," replies the green, bug-eyed chap; "he told me a lot of stories about you." And with those artless words, a final glorious orchestral peroration is set into motion, as the great wheel of life slowly begins to turn into infinity.

Singers, appropriately cast, take to this opera instantly, and I don't think I've ever seen a performance that didn't convey the essential charm, loving spirit and tough facts of life that are embodied in the notes. Here Isabel Bayrakdarian brings not only past expertise to her lively performance as the Vixen, but also an agile, expressive light soprano that seems just about perfect. (I saw the opening performance.) Marie Lenormand partners her enthusiastically as her foxy boyfriend, while Joshua Bloom's burnished bass-baritone and hearty manner makes Harašta seem less villainous than usual.

Four singers effectively double animals and humans (mostly) as Janácek instructed: Melissa Parks (Forester's Wife/Owl), Keith Jameson (Schoolmaster/Mosquito), Wilbur Pauley (Badger/Parson), and Emalie Savoy (Cock/Jay). Although he may not fully suggest the part's deeper resonances, the veteran English baritone Alan Opie is a personable Forester, a good neighbor to all and willing to learn from life.

Since the New York Philharmonic plays host to so much musical talent, it's pleasant to report that the orchestra is the principal star of its own show. This is distinguished Janácek playing by any standard: tangy, perfectly tuned wind playing coupled with a mellow brass sonority that is always ready to make a cutting point. Both instrumental components are backed by a pliant cushion of string tone that can also surge and sing when the need arises. Clearly Gilbert not only loves Janácek, but also understands his music, its tricky ebb and flow, structural originality, unusual textural blends and, above all, its deep humanity.

"The operatic event of the season," someone mumbled on the way out after the first performance on Wednesday. He might well be right.