New York Philharmonic hits another winner with ‘Cunning Little Vixen’

June 23, 2011

Would the Dream Team repeat? Do you believe in miracles? Talk of coming opera productions does not typically mirror the phraseology of sports-world triumphalism, although the analogy seems apt when it comes to the New York Philharmonic and its operatic ambitions.

On Wednesday, just a little more than a year after their surprise-hit staging of Gyorgy Ligeti’s neglected “Le Grande Macabre,” conductor Alan Gilbert and director Doug Fitch presented Leos Janacek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen.”

Once again, it was a wide-open shot. Too short and intimate for a night at a grand opera house yet too thickly orchestrated for chamber companies, the seemingly childlike — although surreally grave — “Vixen” remains a rarity, even while the Czech master’s other operas have seen productions in Washington (“Jenufa,” in 2007) and New York (“From the House of the Dead,” in 2009, with “The Makropulos Case” to come next year).

Judged by its premiere, the Philharmonic’s second staged opera can be counted as another victory, although its creators’ overall conception is not as lights-out as it was in “Macabre.” After all, getting a handle on the elusive tone of “Vixen” — a fable about all-too-mortal humans and anthropomorphized woodland creatures — has proved difficult for other Janacek admirers. Kafka literary executor Max Brod, who translated Janacek’s operas into German, lobbied for a streamlined story, even suggesting that an offstage avatar of male desire actually appear in the drama. But Janacek stuck to his abstractions, creating a sometimes playful but unmistakably old-man-in-winter ode to the cycle of life.

Among the many moods invoked by the opera, the passages of sly humor and mystery were served best here. Fitch’s puppet-master training served him well during the feather-strewn climax of a scene in which the vixen — tied-up and stashed away after her capture by a gruff forester — rabble-rouses the exploited egg-hatchers in a henhouse, feminist-style (“Why should we need men at all?”). And during one orchestral interlude, when the vixen dreams of herself in human form, a dancer standing in for that imagined self also drew the forester’s attention in a way that explained his subsequent actions.

That orchestra sounded grand throughout — precise with Janacek’s rhythms, but not so locked in that it couldn’t swoon along with Gilbert’s reading. As lush as the writing can be, there’s still death in this music. (It is “a merry thing with a sad end,” as Janacek wrote in a letter to his own unrequited love interest.)

Fitch’s direction and attractive costume designs tended to elide this darker side — right down to the 15-foot sunflowers and blue-green scrims that partially obscured the orchestra’s presence onstage. All night, the audience barely suppressed a collective “aww” whenever the children’s chorus appeared in costume. Meanwhile, during an interlude that follows the vixen’s early capture, there was a moment for brass that suggests the bleak prelude to come, years later, in Janacek’s “House of the Dead.” Gilbert hit the grimness hard, although Fitch had no comparable stage action to offer.

Still so much is good here that it seems unlikely we’ll soon encounter a stronger vision of “Vixen.” The cast, all of whom navigated a mostly effective English translation of the libretto, ranged from good (Isabel Bayrakdarian as the vixen and Alan Opie as the forester) to excellent (Marie Lenormand as the fox and Joshua Bloom as the poacher Harasta). Janacek fans — and, really, all opera fans up and down the coast — should consider sneaking in a trip before this production closes Saturday. While the Philharmonic’s next season does not contain another staged drama, here’s hoping the cycle of life has not yet closed on the Gilbert & Fitch company. As long as no other American symphony orchestra is performing opera at this level, they ought to be given a chance for a three-peat.

Walls is a freelance writer.

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