Whenever you see Leos Janacek's 1923 opera The Cunning Little Vixen -- and I'm afraid you see it very rarely -- you wonder why it doesn't get produced more often. Unlike many operas of the 20th century, it is directly accessible, both musically and dramatically. On the surface its story -- about an elderly forester and a young female fox he rescues and brings up -- is almost like a fairy tale. Like fairy tales, though, it has unexpected depths, concerns about age, death, loss and love.
Musically, it is totally enchanting, as was apparent in Alan Gilbert's enthralling conducting of the piece in a staged concert with the New York Philharmonic. This is the second staged opera Gilbert has presented with the Philharmonic -- a year ago he did "Le Grand Macabre" by Gyorgy Li, another work that lends itself to interesting stage effects.
It has taken Janacek an unusually long time to be recognized as one of the masters of 20th century opera, perhaps because his texts are in his native language, Czech, which has its own strange music (the Czechs, I'm told, consider the letter R a vowel because they pronounce it with a kind of vibrato.) The Philharmonic presented it, sensibly, in English in a translation by Norman Tucker.
What sets "Vixen" apart from many operas is its long non-singing purely instrumental passages, which makes it especially appropriate for a symphonic presentation. The full weight of the Philharmonic has a far stronger effect than would a smaller orchestra in a pit. Gilbert made these passages especially thrilling.
He also assembled a great cast, starting with soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, who sang the title role in a rich, shimmering voice. An odd choice of Janacek's was to have the role of the fox who pursues portrayed by another female voice rather than, say, a tenor, but mezzo Marie Lenormand sang it elegantly. They sang their bewitching love duet with great ardor.
Alan Opie's hearty bass, laden with emotion, was perfect for the elderly forester. Tenor Keith Jameson had an endearing quality as a drunken schoolmaster. Joshua Bloom's incredibly powerful bass voice heightened the drama of the poultry dealer who is provoked by the vixen.) There were great contributions by the New York Choral Artists and the Metropolitan Opera Children's Chorus.
Doug Fitch, with his company, Giants Are Small, designed and directed the production. Although it is thoroughly entertaining -- the designs for animals and insects, employing household objects, were inventive and witty -- I'm afraid I have to look the gift horse in the mouth.
Fitch has "planted" some gigantic sunflowers behind the orchestra. These are very jolly and provide a nice counterpoint to Philip Johnson's hulking concert hall. But are they really appropriate for an opera that stresses the mystery and wonder of the forest?
Similarly, Fitch has directed an extremely funny scene with the forester's chickens and roosters. There is humor evident in the text and the music, which comes out mightily in the way the chickens mill about and the roosters strut, but it is the vixen's killing of chickens that turns the forester against her, and the gravity of the moment is heavily undercut by the farcical treatment.
Fitch has introduced a dancer -- the splendid Emily Wagner beautifully choreographed by Karole Armitage -- to make analogies with the vixen and the women in the forester's, an interesting but perhaps gratuitous idea.
Quibbles aside, the work, Gilbert and his forces have created an entirely magical evening -- would that it could have a longer life!