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The Cunning Little Vixen
NEW YORK CITY
Animal magnetism: Vuong and Bullock in Juilliard's Vixen
© Nan Melville 2013
The recent Juilliard production of Janáček's ravishing opera The Cunning Little Vixen (seen Apr. 28) didn't try to compete with the elaborate woodland costumes and pastoral backdrops featured in the New York Philharmonic's concert staging of the same work just two years ago, across the street at Avery Fisher Hall. Juilliard's version, under the direction of Emma Griffin, took place entirely inside one large room of a sleek contemporary house (designed by Laura Jellinek), with splotches of color seen through the windows indicating the changing of the seasons. The denizens of the forest were clearly exuberant young people, not animals, playing games; they wore only animal ears, or, in some cases, masks on the backs of their heads. Thus freed from the constraints of depicting wildlife, the cast was liberated to emphasize the humanistic qualities of the relationships in Janáček's opera (the composer wrote his own libretto), as well as his resonant themes of unity and renewal.
Also helpful in emphasizing this realism was the English translation, by Yveta Synek Graff (a pioneer in bringing Czech opera to English-speaking audiences) and Robert T. Jones. Janáček famously tried to capture the distinctive contours and rhythms of the Czech language in his music, making credible singing translations even harder to create than usual, but these English phrases seemed perfectly natural and well set. This authentic quality was enhanced by generally excellent diction from the exceptionally talented student cast.
Julia Bullock, as Sharp-Ears, the titular vixen, led the way in terms of clarity of delivery and beauty of sound. Her broad range of expression allowed her to be impetuous and demonstrative in her early scenes, then appealingly self-dramatizing later when relating the story of her life to the Fox. In this beautiful courtship scene, Bullock's sound was especially opulent and glorious in her upper register. Later, when she sang "Can it be that I am beautiful?" her voice and face both lit up vibrantly. Her bold, seemingly invulnerable defiance of Harasta, the menacing poacher, was such that her death by gunfire came as a complete shock, even to those who already knew the plot.
Soprano Karen Vuong, as the Fox, deployed a slightly weightier voice than Bullock's but sang with similar beauty of tone, if slightly less precise consonants. Aubrey Allicock, as the Forester who attempts to domesticate the Vixen, was a welcome presence both vocally and dramatically. The steel-edged confidence of his bass-baritone was perfect for delivering the message of rejuvenation in the Forester's big aria near the end.
Martin Bakari was vocally charismatic as the Schoolmaster, who mistakes the Vixen for Terynka, the local girl he is in love with (and who is engaged to Harasta); the same could be said for Önay Köse as the Priest, whose booming baritone gave way to tenderness when he sang of a lost childhood love. As Harasta, John Brancy brought to bear a strong baritone and a bad-boy swagger, projecting his sound effortlessly even in a quiet, reflective section. Mezzo Laura Mixter sang with appealing immediacy as the Poacher's captive dog. The decidedly non-feminst chorus of Hens, in blonde wigs and white nightgowns, proved amusingly uninterested in being liberated from subjugation by the Rooster (a domineering Raquel Gonzáles), much to the progressive-minded Vixen's annoyance.
Anne Manson led the Juilliard Orchestra with firm, decisive command. The strings sounded a tad scrappy at the start, but they achieved much better integration of sound as the afternoon progressed. Jeanne Slater provided the joyful choreography, which verged on the balletic during the Act I dream sequence. Some adorable young members of the Juilliard Pre-College Division struck a very moving tableau after the death of Sharp-Ears, more wonderstruck at the falling snow than grief-ridden over their mother's demise. This, as much as anything, crystallized Janáček's case for the inexorability of the circle of life. And we didn't even need to be outside.
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