Dell’Arte Opera’s excellent cast wins out over intrusive politics in Janacek’s “Vixen”

Sun Aug 20, 2017 at 1:56 pm
Rachel Hart and foofoo in Dell'Arte Opera's production of Janacek's "The Cunning LIttle Vixen." Photo: Brian Long

Rachel Hall (right) in the title role and Stephanie Kim Johnson as The Fox in Dell’Arte Opera’s production of Janacek’s “The Cunning LIttle Vixen.” Photo: Brian Long

On the heels of their successful presentation of La Calisto earlier this month, Dell’Arte Opera, a lively Manhattan outfit that promotes emerging singers, gave the second installment of their “Untamed Opera Festival” on Saturday night. Perhaps it was that theme, or perhaps the rebel spirit of the experimental theater at La MaMa; but whatever the reason, Dell’Arte’s production of Leos Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen was nearly carried away by directorial interference.

Calling Vixen a children’s story isn’t quite on the mark, though there is a certain earnestness to the plot and its themes that tends in that direction. The three-act opera (here presented in two parts, dividing the second act in the middle) tells the story of a young vixen who is captured and then lovingly raised by a forester, before escaping and striking out on her own. After raising a family of foxes, she learns that she can’t escape the human world entirely when she is killed by a poacher.

A far cry from something like Jenůfa, Vixen is one of Janáček’s most loveble scores. Tunefully romantic, it nonetheless bears its composer’s unmistakeable touch, with prickly edges and charming quirks giving the piece its essential character.

For the most part, director Ashraf Sewailam’s basic vision of the piece is relatively straightforward, neatly capturing its folkloric essence in Claire Townsend’s costumes. Folk elements stand out in the outfits of several of the human characters, while the personification of the animals is accomplished through a mix of a kids-on-the-block aesthetic and hipster chic. Combine that staging with solid orchestral playing and superior singing, and you have a delightful evening of theater.

Delightful, that is, save for an unhealthy dose of political posturing. You might think that Vixen is a fairly innocent parable about the lives of animals, the lives of people, and their impacts on each other; you’d be wrong, or so Sewailam would have you believe. Early in the first act, after one of their own is killed by a poacher, the creatures of the forest hold up placards reading “resist” in several languages (no hashtags in opera, apparently), frown sternly at the audience, and hold their fists aloft.

To be sure, theater can be a powerful medium for frank discussion of political issues, but Vixen simply can’t support all of the angst of contemporary American social conflict. The spectacle of furry woodland critters raising their adorable mitts in protest felt more like a cheap attempt to buy the audience’s goodwill than the weighty statement it was surely meant to be.

Even more baffling was the allegorical pantomime during the Vixen and the Fox’s wedding scene. The gypsy girl Terynka comes onstage cheerfully waving a mash-up banner of the American and Palestinian flags, until Harašta comes over and puts a ring on her finger, then hands a rope to an extra in a skullcap, who ties her up. Harašta completes the act by putting a veil over her and leading her away into wedded bliss, leaving the audience to ponder in confused silence.

Thankfully, episodes along those lines are mostly contained and the cast features several excellent vocal performances.

In the title role, Rachel Hall was simply astonishing. She sported a warm soprano of full body, easy fluidity, and perfectly consistent tone, wonderfully liquid in her middle range, and just as comfortable ranging freely at her top. There was an admirable self-assurance in her portrayal of the vixen, with an endearing playful side to match. She was completely alive to every moment on the stage—one of those rare actors who are a treat to watch even when they’re on the sidelines. As she observed her fellows, her subtle reactions and facial expressions betrayed a world of thoughts and emotions.

As the fox who wins her heart, Stephanie Kim Johnson looked every bit the quintessential hipster boyfriend in plaid shirt, afghan, and trilby hat. She complemented her clear, penetrating mezzo with an arresting warmth in the portrayal of her character. Among the evening’s most moving images was that of her putting her arm around the Forester during the closing bars, a final gesture of forgiveness and understanding.

Among the humans of the cast, Hyungjoo Eom stood out as the Forester for his warm, woody baritone. He had some affecting dramatic moments of his own, as when he showed deep sorrow at the sudden flight of the vixen he’d brought in from the forest and raised at his home. The poacher Harašta is drawn up here as a creepy caricature of a back-country “militiaman” who goes hunting in full camo with, illogically, a 9mm handgun. Joshua Miller gamely played along and showed off a robust, richly colored baritone.

Jeremy Brauner displayed an impressive, brassy tenor as the Schoolmaster, and scored one of the evening’s biggest laughs as the Mosquito when he produced a four-foot-long plastic proboscis from his satchel in order to feed on the Forester’s neck. Lauren Rathbun offered a lean mezzo as the Forester’s sour wife, and Lisa Flanagan strutted brilliantly as Chocholka, the fiercest of the hens. Soprano Sarah Daniels brought beaming tone and enviable swagger as the Rooster, and Inbal Milliger made a strong impression as the dog Lapák with her earthy mezzo-soprano.

For these performances, the Dell’Arte orchestra are using a reduction by Jonathan Dove for just sixteen musicians, and the score is quite effective at this size; in the smaller arrangement, the score’s many oddities take on the feel of individual voices in a chamber ensemble.

Under the direction of David Štech, the orchestra created some lovely textures, and enchanted with their impish gestures in the opera’s many interludes. The Dell’Arte orchestra is not the most polished ensemble around–iffy intonation was fairly constant and cohesion faltered here and there–but Štech managed a relatively clean reading, and more besides. The energetic spirit of the work was always at the fore, from the glee of its playful moments to the blaring power of its darker ones.

The Cunning Little Vixen runs through August 27 at La MaMa.

One Response to “Dell’Arte Opera’s excellent cast wins out over intrusive politics in Janacek’s “Vixen””

  1. Posted Aug 23, 2017 at 1:33 am by Joy-anne Ryder

    Congratulations to all the cast amd a special shout out to Rachel Hall. Well done to you Rachel I know you would have been amazing x

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