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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 © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Opera Review: Fox Does Politics

Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble flushes The Cunning Little Vixen.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Into the woods: the Fox (left) and the Vixen (Rachel Hall) meet cute in Janáček's opera.
Photo by Brian Long © 2017 Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble
In the remarkable string of operas that the Czech composer Leoš Janáček crafted in the last years of his life, it is Příhody lišky Bystroušky (usually represented in English as "The Cunning Little Vixen" that stands apart. Based on a Czech newspaper cartoon that was popular in Janáček's hometown of Brno, it is the only one of his operas that has any appeal to a younger audience. And yet, as shown in an intriguing new production by Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble. the Vixen is a deeply relevant opera whose sunny libretto masks some strong political subtext.

Dell’ Arte Opera Ensemble came to life 15 years ago. It is the baby of impresarios: Chris Fecteau, who serves as Artistic Director, and Karen Rich who takes on the duties of General Manager. The couple trains singers who have conservatory degrees but need help figuring out the first phase of their professional career. The company's summer festival usually consists of two operas (the other is Cavalli's La Calisto) and a series of recitals and concerts. This year Dell'Arte returned to the East Village, and is playing at LaMAMA Etc., a weathered performance space on E. 4th St. Did we mention that this modest production is actually performed in the original Czech?

That's right. In addition to the performance experience, Dell'Arte offers its artists movement classes, diction classes, and singing workshops, all lead by the industrious Mr. Fecteau. However, he relinquished conducting duties this year to David Štech. He drew a powerful performance from the bare-bones orchestra, with the efforts of the players exposed by the sparse, minimalist orchestration. Careful staging of this score's many intermezzos and interludes kept the action moving, and the show divided the three acts of the opera into two taut halves.

Director Ashraf Sewelaim chose to emphasize the political elements in this tale of a woodland fox, her life cycle and her complex relationship with the Forester, the opera's human deuteragonist. It was a smart and savvy update. The poacher Haraš5ta (Joshua Miller) appeared in all three acts, a menacing, military figure decked out in U.S. Army style fatigues. The Forester, sung by Korean baritone Hyungjoo Eom) was a kinder, gentler figure, who acted to preserve nature, not exploit it. However, the moment when the Forester kidnaps the Vixen in Act I was met by the forest animals with their fists raised in protest and placards advocating "RESIST."

As the Vixen, Manhattan School of Music graduate Rachel Hall gave a breakout performance, meeting the stiff vocal and dramatic demands of this high-lying role. Decked out in a hat that recalled both the shape of a fox's head and the pink protest hats worn at the Women's March last winter, Ms. Hall was the right mix of funny fox and serious heroine. She invigorated the show from her entrance, giving a rich and complex portrait if a young idealist (in this version, she frees the Forester's chickens instead of slaughtering them) a woman in love and at the end, a tragic heroine as she is killed in the third act.

The second act surrounds the Forester with human friends: the Schoolmaster (played by the wonderful character tenor Jeremy Brauner) and a dour Parson (Brian Alvarado.) He doubled as the bourgeois Badger, and wasevicted from his hole by the saucy Vixen. She then promptly did what all well-propertied young foxes do: fall in love on a summer night. Here, her amour was Fox Goldenback (Stephanie Kim Johnson) and their love affair included animal passion, paparazzi outrage from priggish forest birds , and finally a wild Moravian wedding, with inspired folk-like melodies whirling and spinning from the orchestra and the small chorus.

Mr. Miller took over the opera briefly as the boorish Harasta, who was now more than just a plot device sent by the composer to kill the Vixen. Indeed, the conflict between Forester and poacher mirrored the United States' disastrous adventures in the Middle East, accentuated by the former's kufi hat and woven vest, accentuating that these two armed men come from very different cultures. The death of the Vixen was moving, staged as pure tragedy for an audience that, however briefly believed it was living in a world where foxes could talk and get along with humans. In the moving, final apotheosis of the opera, Mr. Eom's performance made you believe it too, as the Forester was rewarded at last with the gift of being able to understand the speech of the animals around him. It remains one of the most magical last scenes in any opera. 

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