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Friday, June 24, 2011

Opera Review: Fox on the Runway

The Cunning Little Vixen at the New York Philharmonic
Isabel Bayrakdarian makes her escape in
The Cunning Little Vixen. Photo by Chris Lee.
© 2011The New York Philharmonic

This week, the New York Philharmonic ended their marathon 2011 season with Leoš Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen, an opera that pits mankind against the animal kingdom as represented within a Czech forest. Thursday night's performance, under the baton of music director Alan Gilbert, offered a sumptuous reading of the score, with the orchestra supporting a first-class cast.



That cast was led by soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, making her Philharmonic debut in the title role of the vixen Sharp-Ears. Ms. Bayrakdarian displayed an agile soprano instrument with a pleasing tone and the right amounts of light and shade. She also manipulated the complex costume (including a nearly prehinsile fox-tail) easily, coping with the challenging choreography on the somewhat limited stage.

She was well matched by the veteran British baritone Alan Opie as The Forester, the game warden who serves as antagonist, captor and foil to the Vixen. Mr. Opie was joined by Joshua Bloom in the brief role of Harasta, character tenor Keith Jameson as the Schoolmaster and bass Wilbur Pauley in the mirroring roles of the Badger and the Parson. The animal cast also features mezzo Marie Lenormand as Sharp-Ears' vulpine love interest, and members of the Metropolitan Opera Children's Chorus as a menagerie of bugs, butterflies, and beetles.
They gave good sunflower: Alan Gilbert conducts The Cunning Little Vixen.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2011 The New York Philharmonic

The costumes, also designed by Mr. Fitch, combined animal and insect characteristics with everyday items: cargo pants for the Vixen and her mate. Latex skull-caps with scarlet punk-rock mohawks for the Rooster and Chickens. Backpacks for all the insects (presumably to hold their folded wings) and appropriate peasant gear for the Forester, the poacher Harasta, and the denizens of the little tavern that represents the world of man in this opera.


The Vixen is the second collaboration between Mr. Gilbert and director Doug Fitch, who paired on last year's successful staging of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre. The team took a lighter approach with the Janacek piece. Mr. Fitch's design turned the vast stage of Avery Fisher Hall into a giant patch of sunflowers, with cleverly placed cloth scrims and Vari-Lites providing a suitable forest atmosphere. The aisles of the concert hall and a black, tongue-like extension expanded the acting surface into the house, giving the large cast of insects, animals and humans enough room to cavort.

The effect of dappled light and raw natural beauty were also present in Mr. Gilbert's sensitive reading of this brief, but treacherous score. Whether playing the folk melodies generated by the Cricket and the Butterfly, or accompanying the soaring voices of the Vixen and the Fox in their love duet, Mr. Gilbert spent most of the night conducting in a comfortable pocket.

He was bold with the score, speeding tempos when necessary, producing a marvelous kinetic energy in the Act II wedding. The final scene featured impressive playing from the Philharmonic horns, depicting offstage hunting parties with authority and noble, firm tone.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.