For parents pondering how they might introduce their children to opera and which might be most appropriate, look no further than The Cunning Little Vixen. This curious and fanciful little opera by the Czech Leos Janacek is based on an early twentieth-century series of newspaper cartoons filled with woodsy-critter characters then compiled into what we might call an “ur” graphic novel.
The Glimmerglass Festival production realizes the world of the rarely produced opera as a magical forest-floor playground where artists and audience alike can take delight in letting their imaginations soar.
Set Designer Ryan McGettigan won me at the get-go. The front curtain was painted to resemble a giant Japanese woodblock print depicting a luscious fox from ear-tips to tail on a charcoal-gray wood-grained background. The single set was dominated by a giant abstract tree, shaped with great curved branches of laminated wood and a semi-hidden ladder in its branches, where it became a perch for the Owl. The tree’s curves were repeated by rolling wood forms that served as a badger’s den, a swell slide, a resting hammock, and little underground warrens.
Ably partnering the young, home-grown Glimmerglass set designer, veteran lighting designer Mark McCullough used his lighting plot from West Side Story to do double duty in the repertory for Little Vixen. Where for the musical his choices had created the gritty and dark, alternatingly cool and hot, street-gang worlds of Sharks and Jets, here everything was bathed in a magical uplifting pink and golden glow.
Costume designer Erik Teague has never reached into so much delightful invention, often to great comic effect. The chickens swathed in layers of feathers reminiscent of overly powdered and petticoated gossipy ladies were a riot.
Perhaps the score was not as immediately satisfying as opera. During a period when many composers across Europe were fascinated with folk music and traditions, Janacek also explored not only his Moravian and Czech roots for folk melodies but evolved theories about universal “folk” music. He incorporated simple little tunes to designate character themes and other motifs, and they appear scattered throughout the work. But his is a light touch so that one does not need a musical theory compendium to appreciate the work. Hence, the score while hardly lush with full-out arias is pleasing and some snippets quite tunable even for children.
The story is likewise pleasing and focuses on a lonely man’s relationship with a fox, that is a young vixen which he has captured, and the creature begins to tug at his heart. He grows obsessed with wanting to tame and keep her in his possession while she in turn grows more willful and restless, longing to return to the wild and her own kind. The work resonates with just such elements from folk tales around the world where the story is sometimes called “the fox wife.”
In Janacek’s version, the fox also cannot quite let go of her curiosity and her desire to tease and/or torment the man and his fellow humans to dire consequences. But this opera is not a tragedy so much as a tone poem and reverie about the cycle of life that reminds us that it is our salvation to reconnect with nature and remember our role as stewards in the service of the natural world.
Eric Owens is the Forester, and in the first few scenes plays an understated somewhat oafish bloke, or at least a man of limited capacities for affection. He abandons his wife and responsibilities by sneaking off to the forest to take shots at game and nips at a flask. When we meet her, we understand why for she is a brutish, scolding thing and clearly long fed up with her husband.
Director E. Loren Meeker has focused her attentions and inventiveness on creating the world of the animals. She clearly loves exploring character through physical attributes and much stage business.
The Young Artists of Glimmerglass have a field day with this assignment. Coached by Meeker and choreographed into enchanting full stage pictures by the gifted Eric Sean Fogel, the production is visually enchanting.
Olivia Barbieri and Anjou Cloud as young dragonflies dart across the stage with their wings as semaphores in as tightly choreographed patterns as synchronized swimmers. Michelle Arotsky and Rachel Kay have become true entomologists in their observations and recreations of Cricket and Grasshopper respectfully. Emma Novak makes a most charming frog as she hops and squats with her enormous webbed feet displayed on the forest floor.
Amber Monroe as Jay and Gretchen Krupp as Woodpecker strut across the stage with ruffled chests thrust out and sharp little head turns, pointedly using walking sticks to make way. When these two performers returned to the stage they had star turns as Rooster and Head Hen, ruling the roosts and creating barnyard mayhem to great crowd-pleasing effect.
Krupp and some of the other actors do double duty with both animal and human characters and the anthropomorphic relatedness is most effective. Dylan Morrongiello proved the most bold and creative “transformer.” As Mosquito, he turned his walking stick into a bloodsucking needle using it on the sleeping human. He hilariously begins to shake and twitch in an induced high from his drug of choice. His related human form used the same accoutrements to embody an effete Schoolmaster in the manner of Oscar Wilde, falling moonstruck for a sunflower. Zachary Owen likewise made a most ornery, not-to-be-messed-with Badger with his scissors-like claws, and little indications of his prickly superiority and judgment were still there in his role as Pastor. Kayla Siembieda is both the Forester’s Wife and the Screech Owl. She climbs up the ladder into the tree and as Owl watchfully surveys all, and as Wife does the same over her truant human husband! Brian Wallin’s Innkeeper is as boorish as his Boar just as everything about Wm. Clay Thompson’s Poacher feels as sharp an outlier and desperately ruthless as his Wolf.
The Young Vixen (Lilly Grady) is first seen with her mother and two siblings as just one of the kits in this russet family. She wanders off and in her curiosity gets separated and then carried off. The music has her mew piteously in sharp cries, translated in this English version by Kelly Rourke as “Mommy, Mommy.” Joanna Latini plays the titled role of the matured Vixen with much animation and savvy. She is endlessly delightful to watch.
The stage direction is so busily delightful and visually mesmerizing that the audience must be forgiven if sometimes they forget the music. Most of the audience caught off guard did not even recognize the somewhat unmelodic recit-like Vixen aria, which at the end was madly applauded only by the design team in the back row. It was a bit embarrassing truthfully. Luckily we get some very memorable duet work between Latini and Alyssa Martin, in a contemporary “pants role” as her husband the Fox.
The emotional meat of this opera was not delivered by the animals, as enchanting as they were, but by the Forester (Owens,) who returns to the forest at the end of his life and there he finds hope and reconciles himself to his own mortality.
He sings of a love he found one summer, where they roamed together. People who don’t know the opera might think he is singing of his little vixen, but no, it was a human love, and he sings of how together they had eaten strawberries and enjoyed being physically close. Just standing there, the masterful baritone sings so expressively of heartache and regret. At last he acknowledges responsibility and his part in starving love by not showing through little gestures of affection the attention his wife and perhaps whole family needed. He has learned that possession and love are not the same.
Janacek’s most memorable tune is also the final one “You know, everything comes in its season.” In this opera about a vixen, the outpouring of music is not just spring and the rebirth of love through the next generation of kits. It is also about old age and a Forester transformed into a kind of “green man” steward of the natural world, a man who at last learns contentment by listening deeply to the forest’s heartbeat. When Owens bows to a passing fox, his humility and new awareness are gifts to us.
One very observant young boy name Levon in the audience chimed up, “I loved The Frog best because he hopped.” His sister, Lilyann, loved the chickens because they were “so clucky and funny.” We all agreed we wanted a tree just like the one in the opera – with a ladder that we could climb up to a treehouse. Their grandmother assured me she was bringing them to more operas throughout the Glimmerglass season. It made me so happy to meet these opera lovers in training.
How lucky we were to have spent an afternoon with the magical singing frog, blue jay, chickens, badger, fox and vixen.
The Cunning Little Vixen. Composed and Original Libretto by Leos Janacek. English Libretto by Kelley Rourke. Stage Direction by E. Loren Meeker. Conducted by Joseph Colaneri. Choreography by Eric Sean Fogel. Sets by Ryan McGettigan. Costumes by Eric Teague. Lighting by Mark McCullough. Hair and Makeup by Dave Bova. Featuring Eric Owens and with young artists Michelle Arotsky, Olivia Barbieri, Anjou Cloud, Lilly Grady, Rachel Kay, Gretchen Krupp, Joanna Latini, Catie LeCours, Alyssa Martin, Katherine Maysek, Amber R. Monroe, Dylan Morrongiello, Emma Novak, Zachary Owen, Kayla Siembieda, Maggie Stephens, Wm. Clay Thompson, and Brian Wallin. And The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith