Barn yesterday

The Cleveland Orchestra’s premiere performance of Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen proved to be both a critical  and audience success. This is no mean achievement as the opera which is quite a cultural gem is not easy to carry off in a standard operatic house due to its fanciful plot and a highly anthropomorphic cast of animal characters. However, thanks to 21th century technology and subtitles it proved a delight.  

The opera premiered in 1924 and was based on a popular Czech comic strip of the day by Rudolf Tesnohlidek, with whom Janacek met before composition. It’s kind of like a Czech Animal Farm but without any  of the cutesiness and cloying quality of a Disney film. The story concerns a young vixen who is caught by a Forester while chasing a frog. The Forester’s attempts to turn the animal into a house pet prove disastrous as she has an unfortunate tendency to attack his bratty children and eat his hens.

The vixen escapes and meets a handsome fox with whom she falls in love and “marries” to the joy of the other animals. They breed and produce little foxes. The Forester tries to recapture the Vixen but accidentally shoots her, resulting in her death. A while later he encounters a daughter of the Vixen (a “spitting image” and even a frog who is the grandson of the original frog.) Real “Circle of Life” stuff but it’s infinetely more moving than presented in dreck like The Lion King.

The Cleveland Orchestra deserves kudos for its innovative and original mode of presenting this strange work. Instead of a boring concert version with stiff singers in tuxes (Ah, the good old days before projected subtitles when audiences really had to do their homework!) they rigged a small stage behind the orchestra and blank panels onto which an animated projection of the forest, the characters’ dancing dragonflies, chattering hens provided a colorful spectacle.

This was accomplished by the animation design firm of Walter Robot (Bill Barminski and Christopher Louie.) Their telling of the tale via cartoons fit the opera perfectly as its based on a comic strip anyway and I would imagine a standard production of this work with opera singers dressed as foxes, badgers, frogs, etc, could end up looking like a bad Kindergarten Spring production.Director Yuval Sharon kept things moving at a brisk pace and made good use of the limited space  provided

The Orchestra had the good fortune to employ excellent singing actors of both local and international reknown. This work is not likely to attract star box office types anyway as it tends to lack any marketable hit tunes and the roles are character studies., Soprano Martina Jankova, a Czech  native, proved a delight as the Vixen, maturing from a young pup (or whatever a baby vixen is called) to a mature female. One should keep an eye on her, it’s a first rate voice. She first worked for conductor Franz Welser Most in Salzburg  and he has employed her in several productions, most notably a recent Marriage of Figaro with the Cleveland Orchestra as Susanna.

Another standout was Bass Baritone Alan Held as the Forrester, who created a believable somewhat sympathetic character out of what could have been a boorish oaf.   Also impressive was Jennifer Johnson Cano as the Fox with whom the vixen mates. She has a solid plummy sound with good projection and her duets with Jankova were a delight. The orchestra under the stylish baton of Welser Most played flawlessy and with a real feel for the idiom.

In conclusion, while Cleveland probably won’t end up on any pricey opera tours it’s in the process of becoming an opera town. Since the Cleveland Opera folded, the slack has been taken up by local groups such as Opera Circle which is presenting Strauss’s Daphne in June.

Photo: Roger Mastroianni