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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Opera Review: Fur is Murder

Juilliard Opera presents The Cunning Little Vixen.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Vixen Sharp-Ears (left, standing center) instructs her brood as the Fox (Karen Vuong, right) looks on.
Photo by Nan Melville © 2013 The Juilliard School.
The unexpected renaissance of Czech opera at Juilliard continues with the Juilliard Opera's energetic, season-ending production of Leoš Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen, seen April 30 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater. This production, combining some of the best singers from the conservatory's upper and lower divisions, offers a fresh take on this beloved opera. The opera was performed in English and without intermissions.

Under the baton of Anne Manson, the Juilliard Orchestra played this score with relish and punch, putting bright energy into the folk dances and savoring Janáček's special brand of ear candy. The choreography (by Jeanne Slater) made use of the singers' energy and athleticism to keep the viewer's interest during the many long orchestral Pantomimes that the composer provided for set changes, contributing to this production's general sense of joy and celebration.

Emma Griffin's staging eliminates some of the traditional elements of this opera to create a more environmentally friendly approach. The set (by Laura Jellinek) eschews the usual mix of woodland and rustic buildings for a simple set: a long, white-paneled acting space with spare, woodsy furniture. The white panels echo the original newspaper comic strips that inspired the composer. It is riddled with doors and hidden passages, allowing the singers depicting birds, insects and of course, animals to emerge from nowhere to interact as needed. The less-is-more approach extends to the costumes, as bright clothes, patterned dresses and simple animal masks replace the usual mix of fur, feathers and insect wings.

This Spartan approach to the drama ensures that the cast takes center stage. And they're a strong bunch, led by the live-wire soprano Julia Bullock in the title role. She takes on the difficult role of the Vixen Sharp-Ears fearlessly, singing at the absolute top of her range  her confrontations with the Chickens and the Badger. She shifts gears in Act II engaging in a warm, cooing duet when she meets Fox Golden-Stripe (Karen Vuong.) The chaotic sex and wedding scenes that follow are played with brisk, bright energy.

Ms. Bullock is matched in the lead by Aubrey Allicock, in the longer (and less gratifying) role of the Forester. This guardian of the woods emerges as the opera's other protagonist, from the opening scene (where he violates man's covenant with nature by capturing the Vixen) to the final scene of the opera where he gains a new understanding of man's relationship to nature. Mr. Allicock sang with a gruff, paternal baritone, making nothing of the fact that he is a good deal younger than most singers who tackle this role.

There were other standouts in the enormous cast. Bass Önay Köse doubled the roles of the Badger and the Priest, showing a secure lower end in his drunken, comic scenes with the Forester and the Schoolmaster (tenor Martin Bakari.) Some clever direction resulted in a novel solution for multiple bits of stage action that all need to happen in rapid succession--including the massacre of the Chickens in Act I and the climactic death of the Vixen at the hands of the poacher Harašta.

Ms. Vuong made an exceptional Fox, cocky and athletic. Mezzo Raquel Gonzáles was a very funny butch Rooster, commandeering a flock of Chickens in white negligees and blonde wigs. (The moment when the last chicken makes a point to willingly step into the Vixen's snare was a comic highlight.) Laura Mixter was strong as the Forester's Dog, proudly declaring "I'm a composer!" before admitting that her compositional efforts led to beatings and exile. Finally, a slew of promising young men and women made up the swarming animals of Janacek's imaginary forest, contributing life and vitality to a classic story that is, at it's heart, all about the passage of time.

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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.