The Boston University Opera Institute-Glimmerglass co-production of Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen at the Emerson-Cutler Majestic Theater impressed this writer as the most consistently satisfying opera he has seen this season. What wonderful things can be witnessed when the budget permits flights of imagination from scenic designers, choreographers, stage directors, costumers, and illuminatists. And then the singing and playing—it ever pleased.
Janáček developed a language that allowed mini-motifs to sparkle in a context of folkloric nostalgia and Debussian modernism. Not only does he quote Bohemian and Moravian folk, he transcribed, especially in this opera, the voices of birds, mosquitoes, flies, foxes, badgers, frogs and maybe even the disquieting solidity of a menacing tree. Yet he could also in brief episodes, evoke the bittersweet romantic resignation of Richard Strauss in Rosenkavalier. Could Janáček’s Schoolmaster’s embrace of a sunflower be compared to the “Presentation of the Rose?”
William Lumpkin led an enthusiastically engaged and technically strong pit contingent of 40 under- and post- graduates in Jonathan Dove’s deservedly standard reduction. They absorbed the composer’s language of odd chords, askew rhythms (maybe not so askew if you consider the relationship to the Czech tongue), and lyrical impulse. The continuous stream of fine music making in the overtures, interludes, and accompaniments underpinned the show with reassuring confidence on Thursday’s last night of the run.
Ryan McGettigan’s handsomely patterned main-act curtain with a half-proscenium arch-wide sly fox rose to reveal a shadowy version of the same image on a scrim, behind which the forest creatures cavorted with theatrical magic somewhat akin to the fairies in the 1935 Max Rheinhardt-William Dieterle “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Erik Teague (CFA ’11) costumed the creatures with sophistication, and allusory adult irony. These were not children’s book images. What a brilliant menagerie he designed. And the way the characters moved in Erich Sean Fogel’s original choreography as interpreted by Felicity Stiverson, allowed for distinctive personalities for each individual within well-planned corps. Consider the fabulously plumaged chickens; not only did they cluck from the pit and from the singer-dancer’s beaks, but they flocked most amusingly, and submitted to having their necks wrung with the resignation of short-lived creatures. And where did the choreography stop and stage director E. Loren Meeker’s (CFA ’99) blocking begin? No seams showed.
Kat C. Zhou cast brilliant evocative rays on the proceedings, making a kind of silent music with her mood-observant illuminations. The set was dominated by an enormous, twisted, modernist, and grasping hollow tree which looked upon everyone and everything with a spiritual knowingness. The backdrop scrim served as an effective color organ. Flats with rooftops dropped down for interior and homestead scenes. A horn chandelier descended for the tavern.
All the singers on this night gave pleasure in great measure. Megan Callahan, doubling Vixen Mother and Fox, filled the house with clear and attractive tones. As the Fox she executed an elegant prince charming routine that the Vixen sensibly did not resist. Blake Jennings portrayed the Badger and the Pastor with contrasting vividness, giving no ground to anyone. Tenor Eric Carey quivered with orgasmic excitement as the blood-drunk Mosquito and with punch-drunk passion as the unrequited lover. Mezzo-soprano Rebecca Printz, whom we had very much lauded in the title role in BU’s Dolores Claiborne a couple of months back, sang the Forester’s Wife with some of the same frustrated menace and tall stage command. She also moved fluidly and telegraphed wisdom as the Screech Owl. Great singer-actor-dancers ensembled in 14 other comprimario roles. As the Wolf and Harasta, the Poacher, Frank Rosamond allowed his warm and youthful baritone to enter fully into his characterizations. Too bad he had to be the villain of the piece and shoot the Vixen, although that set up a striking freeze frame and blood-dripping spectrum to shock us.
The yearning between the Vixen and the Forester, representing Janáček’s realized and thwarted romantic ambitions, forms the work’s emotional and thematic crux. Any forester would be smitten by soprano Emilie Faiella’s sly little fox. How she cavorted! How she smiled! How she sang! Her mastery of the lyricism and the speech patterns offered us a sonic feast. The one ringer David Kravitz imbued the Forester with a powerful and tireless baritonal line, getting the job done like a dependable old pro. The final scene with the daughter-Vixen and Forester delivered an indelible message of consolation: though an individual’s life may be short, the show must go on.
In a phone call, producer Oshin Gregorian placed this first Glimmerglass-BU co-production in a context of longstanding apprenticeships of BU singers and theater technicians at Glimmerglass. This year the temporal stars aligned to bring the scenery and props, and costumes from Cooperstown for a later-than-usual final BU production date at the Majestic, and allowed an extra week to develop the choreography and ensemble esprit-de corps. A production crew of over 24, including 8 from Glimmerglass adapted the sets and drops to the smaller Majestic stage, and to accommodate the double-casting, the Huntington Theater workshop duplicated some of the main characters’ costumes with beautiful craftsmanship. Gregorian’s welcome production augurs for more such fruitful collaborations, which would enormously benefit BU students and Boston audiences.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer