By Daniel Hathaway
CLEVELAND – The Cleveland Orchestra’s digitally enhanced production of Leoš Janáček’s opera, The Cunning Little Vixen, which opened on May 17 for the first of four performances in Severance Hall, is beguiling in concept and brilliant in execution.
Director Yuval Sharon set out to fashion a scenario that would support the composer’s “forest idyll,” a magical world where the barrier between the lives of animals and human beings is ambiguous and permeable.
Hovering between a concert performance and a fully-staged production, Vixen centered around music director Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra, who were deployed on three different levels, utilizing the raised pit and bathed in nearly full light. Just behind the percussion section, a wide but shallow platform had been constructed, backed up by a triptych of projection screens whose center section was pierced by portholes and a pair of doors.
Here’s where the fun began. Technology was the silent partner in Sharon’s production. As Janáček’s panoramic music set the scene, an animated forest came to life on the screens, buzzing with insects and busy with birds. Human characters in costume played their parts on the platform, poking their masked heads through the portholes like people posing for funny photos at an amusement park.
The animation, by Bill Barminski and Christopher Louie of Walter Robot Studios, was cleverly conceived, masterfully drawn, and timed to perfection with the music and live action. The animation added the rest of the performers’ bodies, often in amusing ways — especially at the end of the show when Welser-Möst took his first conductorial bow through a porthole, white tie and tails courtesy of the animators.
While Sharon’s concept redefines the tradition of The Talking Head, it was an important factor in setting up the whole ethos of the opera. In his director’s notes, he writes, “The animated sets and costumes let us move between literal and abstract realms with complete fluidity, never encumbered by clunky scenery. The singers are free from the physical burden of trying to convince us they are wild animals and instead focus on the essential delivery of the character with their most powerful expressive tools: their voices and their heads. And, most importantly, the audience is free to create their own interpretations on this strange and wondrous work.”
Here’s where you would expect to read a synopsis of the plot. Suffice to say that The Cunning Little Vixen can be “about” a number of things — the life cycles of animals and humans; the majesty and mystery of the forest — but the charm of the opera derives from its ambiguity. The Vixen “Sharp Ears,” like any good fox, goes through a number of escapades in 90 minutes, but as in the daily newspaper comic strip that inspired the opera, the action is episodic and doesn’t necessarily add up to a coherent narrative. [You can see some images from the old comic strip, by Rudolf Těsnohlídek and Stanislav Lolek here.]
An extra layer of interpretive fodder in this production was provided by the doubling up of characters: the Parson and the Badger; the Mosquito and the Schoolmaster; the Forester’s Wife and the Woodpecker. Hmm. That could mean something.
The singers were a splendid mix, imported and local. As the Vixen, Martina Janková was luminous of voice and exuded personality even as a disembodied head. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, as her paramour, the Fox, matched Janková perfectly; their extended courtship scene on stage was a high point of the piece. Bass-baritone Alan Held sang the Forester with booming authority; bass-baritone Dashon Burton (Badger and Parson) and tenor David Cangelosi (Mosquito and Schoolmaster) joined him in animated conversations in the tavern. Cangelosi’s tipsy journey home was hilarious.
Bass Raymond Aceto (Harašta, a poultry-dealer) and mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne (Lapák, the Forester’s Dog) winningly filled out the list of principals. Smaller roles were expertly sung and acted by mezzo-soprano Sandra Ross (Forester’s Wife and Woodpecker), mezzo-soprano Samantha Gossard (Rooster and Owl), baritone Brian Keith Johnson (Pásek the Innkeeper), and sopranos Marian Vogel (Mrs. Pásek, Chief Hen and Blue Jay), Laura Schubach (Cricket, Frog and Pepík, the Forester’s grandchild), and Miranda Scholl (Grasshopper and Pepík’s friend). Colorful masks by Cristina Waltz helped define the non-human characters.
The Cleveland Orchestra Chamber Chorus, prepared by Robert Porco, was predictably impressive but unusually portable, appearing first as a gaggle of hens (singing in Czech!) near the stage on both sides, then migrating to the dress circle and its aisles to become the voices of the forest. In Act III, the Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus, superbly trained by Ann Usher, warbled a vivacious folk song about the Vixen’s latest caper.
Welser-Möst drew colorful, expansive playing of Janacek’s evocative music from the Cleveland Orchestra. Even with the orchestra front and center, the balance between upstage voices and downstage instrumentalists was generally excellent.
It’s easy to fall into the high-tech trap and try to use all the available tools and gimmicks. While there were certainly moments when you wished that leaves would stop dropping and birds would stay put instead of flying incessantly through the scene, the visuals were expressive, entertaining, and often wryly funny. If the vertical lines running down the projections were meant to give them a retro look — like scratches on the celluloid of old newsreels — that soon became annoying.
The capacity audience responded to Vixen with whoops and bravos, calling the cast back to the stage (or to their portholes) for several extra bows. Whatever deep inner meaning you found in the piece, the end of the opera was poignant and affecting. No wonder Janáček requested the final scene to be played at his funeral.
The Cunning Little Vixen will be repeated May 20 and May 22 at 8 p.m. and May 24 at 2 p.m.
Daniel Hathaway is founder and editor of ClevelandClassical.com.