in: Reviews

February 9, 2011

Charming Cunning Little Vixen

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Boston audiences are in for a treat this dismal winter with Boston Collaborative Opera’s production of the rarely heard opera, The Cunning Little Vixen by Leos Janácek, in a reduced orchestration by British composer Jonathan Dove and in a new edition conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya. Based on the novel of Rudolf Tesnohlídek, this charming opera, just two hours long, was written late in Janácek’s life. (Tesnohlídek had a tragic life, for writing such a happy story, which the program notes duly illustrate.) The opera is sung in English (in a translation by Norman Tucker) with English supertitles. The Sunday afternoon performance I heard was only about third full, which may have had something to do with the Super Bowl. But audiences can catch it next weekend, Feb. 11 – 13 evenings at 7:30 and Sunday afternoon at 3:00 at the Tower Auditorium at MassArt.

The singing was uneven. At times you could not hear what the Parson/Badger (baritone Daniel Schwarz) was trying to say. Amidst the hubbub on the stage, the supertitles could not keep up with the action; one relied on the singers to convey it.

After a lively overture typically full of Janácek traits, we’re treated to a drunken forester (baritone Taesung Kim in this performance), disturbed by dancing revelers (Rachel and Lauren Batiancila), who sample his drink. There is also a mosquito (tenor Nicholas Hebert, who doubles as the schoolmaster) and the cutest little marionette frog. In fact, all the marionettes, including a bevy of red foxes, are inspired. All are treated with music of Janácek at his most inventive, including bird, chicken, and frog calls.

Back to the story. The Vixen, Sharp Ears (soprano Erin M. Smith), is captured by the forester. In her dreams, she imagines herself as a powerful woman and escapes to the forest. Later, in a bar, the forester taunts the schoolmaster about an affair with an unobtainable woman. In due time, there is a hilarious scene in which the schoolmaster drunkenly makes his way in the dark forest.

The following spring, a fox (soprano Natalie Polito) falls in love with Sharp Ears, and all is jubilation in the forest. Stage Director Roxanna Myhrum has the most effective way to accomplish this, with the offstage cast singing a wordless chorus and the dancers and marionettes cavorting on stage. The same technique occurs at the end of the opera, with the cast singing from the balconies as the forester, lying in the forest, reminisces about his youth.

Act III introduces Harasta the poultry dealer (bass Thaddeus Bell), who ends up killing the vixen for eating his chickens. At the Inn, preparations for a wedding are under way. The schoolmaster is not involved, but the forester advises that men of their age should not be concerned. Then the wondrous ending of the opera ensues in the forest.

The final scene was performed at Janácek’s funeral in 1928, a testament to his fondness for the opera, which bears none of the cruelty of his early ones. He wrote the libretto himself, modeling the forester on himself and working in his younger girlfriend as the schoolmaster’s inamorata. Thus, a seventy-year-old man gets to relive his youthful dreams, with folklore, mime, and dancing. Three Czech folk songs are quoted wholesale.

Larry Phillips studied music at Harvard, the Montreal Conservatory, and at New England Conservatory. In 1974 he was a prizewinner at the International Harpsichord Competition in Bruges, Belgium.

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