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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Opera Review: Nature Red in Tooth (and claw)

Manhattan School of Music presents a cunning little Vixen.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Right before the feathers fly: the Vixen Sharp-Ears (Shantal Martin, foreground)
gets ready to ravage a chorus of chickens. Photo courtesty Manhattan School of Music.
Adaptations of cartoons and comics as popular entertainment are now commonplace in popular culture. A hundred years ago, that form of entertainment was opera, and it was Moravian composer Leoš Janáček who had the idea of taking a popular children's comic strip from a Brno paper and making it into an opera. Příhody lišky Bystroušky (literally "The Adventures of Vixen Sharp-Ears", also known as "The Cunning Little Vixen" was way ahead of its time. On Thursday night, the Senior Opera Theater of Manhattan School of Music unveiled a new bare-bones staging of this challenging three-act opera (sung in English) with a cast of young singers applying themselves to recreating the woodland fantasy of this vivid, vital opera.

With its mix of woodland whimsy and an ultimately optimistic ending, Vixen may be among the ideal works to introduce children to the world of opera,  Yes, the heroine dies (it is after all, an opera) but the libretto recognizes the artifice of the genre, even referring to how the Vixen will have comics and an opera written about her. Although MSM presents it every few years, it remains a bit of a rarity. The score (like all mature works by Janacek is knotty and demanding, with unique Moravian folk rhythms, dances and rustic passages. These please the ear but may prove trying for the orchestra and singers alike. 

The first of two casts appearing this weekend was generally able. On Thursday night, soprano Shantal Martin anchored the opera. As Sharp-Ears, Ms. Martin had enough power to make the big notes ring out in the smallish Ades Performance Space.  Whether leading a "workers uprising" that results in the slaughter of an entire chorus of singing chickens (and one rooster) evicting the Badger from his den or being courted by Fox Golden-Stripe, this was a lovely performance. Her death scene was appropriately handled and chaotic: she was not so much the victim of a skilled hunter but killed by a "lucky" shot.

Michael Gracco was the Forester for this opening cast. He had an amiable presence if not quite the weight of voice or world-weariness that are essential to what is essentially a portrait of the composer himself. Indeed, his stormy relationship with the Vixen is the center of the entire work, extending even beyond her death to the crucial final scene. This tall, bluff singer had decent comic timing in the tavern scenes, and the crucial finale, where the Forester suddenly understands the chatter of the rest of the animal cast had an appropriate sense of wonder.

Tenor Emmett Tross sang with a fine, light instrument, well suited to the aged Schoolmaster. The bass Guangbo Su was also pleasing, and his deep tones brought humor to the pompous Badger and gravitas to the somewhat sad figure of the Parson. Mezzo Victoria Falcone was ideal for Fox Golden-Stripe, whose rapid courtship, seduction and marriage of Sharp-Ears brought Act II to an exuberant conclusion. In the third act, the baritone Jose Maldonado made the poacher Haraschta into a bumbling, even sympathetic figure, at least until his clumsy shot killed the Vixen.

Dona D. Vaughan took a "less-is-more" approach to mounting this opera and for the most part, it worked. With no proscenium arch, colorful singers ran on and off the stage, performing dance routines in the work's many intermezzos. The costumes themselves were representational without being unwieldy, and the consolidation of certain roles (Mr. Su sang the Parson and the Badger, and Ms. Martin played both Sharp-Ears and one of her kits in the final scene) only made sense, given the lack of children in the cast and the resources of the conservatory.

The challenges of this wonderful score  were met ably by conductor Jorge Parodi, although some of the brass began to tire by three third act. However, they marshaled themselves to achieve a burnished glow for the key series of brass chords that marks the transition of the Forester from. Ignorance to understanding, and the transfiguration of the audience from cynical opera-goes to adults revisiting he best and most melodious parts of their childhood. The transformation of one into the other is one of the reasons to see this work again...and again.

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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.