Somewhere in the woodlands of Moravia, a politically outspoken she-fox accuses a badger of “lounging around like a capitalist.” In a nearby tavern, working-class humans bewail their lot yet glory in the wonders of nature. Dragonflies waltz in the distance. Such is the world of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen (Příhody lišky Bystroušky), given a lively, colorful reading last night by NEC Opera at the Cutler Majestic Theater.
Appropriately enough considering its source material (essentially a collection of comic strips), Vixen’s aesthetic falls somewhere between Disney’s Silly Symphonies and Jay Ward’s Fractured Fairy Tales, with socialist and modernist mores woven within. The scenario depicts the life and times of a particularly spirited forest creature—the titular vixen—her animal companions, human foils, and their cyclical, everlasting ties to one another. On the surface, the conceit is almost facile, yet the composer’s treatment of universal themes and allusions to early 20th century Eastern European society suggest a complex parable rather than a blithe pastorale. The work could be safely shown to (older) children, yet is it one replete with discreet references to adult themes —I’m not sure the term “shotgun wedding” has a direct translation in Czech, but it’s darkly coincidental that one shows up in a plot that revolves around the threat of death by a hunter’s rifle. As made clear in the rather colloquial surtitles (here credited to Boston Conservatory Director of Opera Studies Johnathan Pape) Vixen also features a number of self-aware references to the world of the stage and perhaps even to the composer’s biography; in one moment, the wooing Fox tells his beloved, “Novels, even operas will be written about you!” In another, the lovelorn Schoolmaster is offered cold comfort with the line, “Marrying such a woman at your age would be unsound counterpoint”—possibly an oblique reference to Janáček’s own fixation on Kamila Stösslová, the subject of his previous opera Katya Kabanová.
Stage director and NEC Opera Chair Joshua Major gives us a world that fully embraces the human characteristics of its animal denizens, slyly suggesting a greater kinship between the two worlds than we might be comfortable recognizing. He notes, “Rather than recreate authentic looking animals, I have chosen to take an element of the animal and apply it to the human. The animals fight, love and survive as we do. The humans in the tale are tired, drunk, angry delusional and lonely. There is a sense that they exist in a changing world that is leaving them behind…. Janáček’s emotional and brilliant ending gives us hope and acts as a reminder of what is important.”
To realize this allegorical interpretation, Scenic Designer Nick Dorr has created an abstract set with just enough realistic elements to clarify the libretto’s symbolism. The action plays out on a multilevel stage dominated by a raised, semi-circular structure with a sweeping staircase at stage right and a trapdoor in the center with a ladder leading to the “ground floor.” This fire-escape construction was perhaps overused, slowing down moments of urgency, such as the Fox and Vixen’s hasty exit to go do as nature intended and act on their mutual passion. That said, the set functions very well on the whole, adding visual interest (and an evocation of the hilly Czech countryside) to the proceedings, aided by Lighting Designer Christopher Ostrom’s wide range of chromatic effects. The scenery is so well appointed that its removal at the close seemed jarring and incongruous; as the Forester delivers his final monologue extolling the wonders of creation, the scrim and painted trees fly up, revealing the ladders and exposed brick of the back wall behind the stage. One wonders what point Major intends to drive home with this gesture—that the world of the stage is an artificial one? That here the lesson endeth, and we must go out into the real world to put what we’ve learned into practice? Or is it merely to contrast the peace of a woodland landscape with a stark, urban backdrop? There must be a rationale behind this unveiling, but I confess it eludes me.
Katherine Stebbins Remesch’s witty costumes skillfully evoked class and gender roles within the animal kingdom. Her outfits for the chickens in Act I were particularly inspired; hair arranged in mohawks died bright red to suggest the birds’ combs, the ladies strutted in glitzy high heels, corsets and gathered skirts provocatively hiked up at the sides, like a coterie of ragtime-era street walkers presided over by a louche rooster in suspenders and a bowler hat. This made the Vixen’s Marxist-feminist exhortation to overthrow their lord and master all the more pointedly humorous. The brilliant ensemble executed a delightful piece of stage business in this scene: immediately after the Vixen falls to the ground, apparently dead (in fact playing possum to confuse her prey), the birds instantly turn to each other in consternation, twitching and jerking their heads in spastic little movements that perfectly mimic a barnyard full of hens.
The performance is double-cast, and Saturday’s collection of performers offered up an array of compelling and affecting interpretations. Feral and feisty from the first, soprano Jacquelyn Stucker brought a magnetic presence and a shimmering gold timbre to the title character. Something about her rich yet bright sound, together with a lively, committed stage persona recalls a young Teresa Stratas, but with a taut, propulsive energy that is entirely Stucker’s own. Perfectly at home on the stage, she drew focus naturally, without ever detracting from the contributions of her colleagues.
These contributions, to be sure, were considerable. As the Forester, Josh Quinn made a powerful first impression, entering with easy confidence and an excess of sheer timbral beauty. His butter-smooth delivery is so easy on the ears one almost wished Janáček had written more for this already significant role, the better to further enjoy Quinn’s naturally gorgeous vocalism. The baritone also proved an effective actor; in the final scene, his tender recognition of a fox cub as the daughter of the dead Vixen was especially touching.
Clad in a tuxedo with an Edwardian vest, Nataly Wickham made a dapper Fox, proffering gentlemanly yet ardent advances toward the Vixen in the second act and adopting the genial-yet-dignified air of the paterfamilias in the third. She made a convincing foil to Stucker’s Vixen; the latter’s devil-may-care bravado melted softly into shyness in the presence of her suitor. Wickam’s fierce, steely soprano was remarkably robust; I would not be surprised if Valkyries were in her future.
Other standouts include Chauncey Blade, who brought an arrestingly warm, masculine sound and an abundance of swagger to the role of Harasta, the poacher. His spiteful murder of the Vixen and subsequent casual indifference to his role in her fate seemed like a desecration in the context of a story that celebrates, even sanctifies, the connection of humanity to the natural world. Rafael Delsid was a prim Schoolmaster clad in academic robes whose character-determined inhibitions happily did not extend to his fluid, lustrous tenor. As the Pastor, Nicholas Tocci brought a rich, deep, utterly Slavic bass-baritone quality; it was easy to imagine this priest walking off the stage and directly into a performance of the Glagolitic Mass.
[A note on the Sunday afternoon performance: BMInt’s Publisher Lee Eiseman reports that Erica Petrocelli’s Vixen sent blazing shafts of tone to the Majestic’s furthest reaches with great ease, while Junhan Choi’s Forester channeled the philosophizing Everyman with baritonal grace. As the Fox, dramatic soprano Sarah Tuttle blew swain’s smoke to amusing and musical effect.]
I was thrilled to read that the production would be sung in its original Czech, and even more delighted with the singers’ delivery on the night. Timothy Cheek is credited as the production’s “Czech Consultant;” I’m not sure what this credit suggests beyond language coaching, but Cheek has done an absolutely smashing job of whatever it entails. Unable to boast a proficiency in the composer’s tongue, I can only judge by stylistic markers, but within that limit report that each vocalist seems thoroughly at home in a linguistic realm far removed from the Italian-French-German trinity central to conservatory training. Beyond enunciation, the cast give themselves over to the cultural idiom, embracing the music’s hearty Czech flavor, diving in with fervor and conviction; one imagines the nationalistic Janáček would approve. The instrumentalists too, acquitted themselves admirably; under the stylish and graceful direction of guest conductor Gil Rose, the New England Conservatory Orchestra gave a restrained but effective reading of Janáček’s score in a reduction by Jonathan Dove.
An unexpected and felicitous byproduct of our Live-In-HD and YouTube era brings titles lying outside the Central European canon to increased attention from both performers and the public. Marvelous as the old warhorses are, experienced audiences seem sated by the surfeit of Bohèmes and Barbers, Figaros and Flying Dutchmen, and show a growing appetite for works long relegated to the periphery. Vixen in particular has experienced a surge in popularity in both professional and conservatory companies (Boston Conservatory mounted a production as recently as 2013), while its composer, though never considered obscure, has enjoyed renewed interest. With this thoughtful rendering NEC Opera makes a compelling case for a more in-depth acquaintance with Janáček; one hopes that we will continue to see Vixens, Kabanovás and Makropoulos Affairs as often as Toscas and Traviatas.
The Cunning Little Vixen repeats Monday and Tuesday, February 8th and 9th.