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, Jan·ček’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 Jan·ček and Puccini as well as Richard Strauss . As
Jan·ček 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, Jan·ček’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 Lap·k, 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.
product_title=Leoö Jan·?ek: The Cunning Little Vixen
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product_id=Above: Leoö Jan·?ek