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The Cunning Little Vixen
Franz Welser-Möst conducts the Cleveland Orchestra in Yuval Sharon's multimedia production of Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen
© Roger Mastroianni 2014
Soprano Marian Vogel as Mrs. Pásek
© Roger Mastroianni 2014
Julie Boulianne and Martina Jankova as the Dog and Vixen "Sharp Ears"
© Roger Mastroianni 2014
Professionally performed opera has returned to Cleveland! For Ohio's north-coast city this is important news. The opera was The Cunning Little Vixen (Příhody lišky Bystroušky) by Leos Janáček, presented by the Cleveland Orchestra on May 17 (and continuing through May 24) in a multi-media production devised by Yuval Sharon that gave stellar new meaning to the term "concept opera."
Vixen does not rise to the shattering climaxes of some of Janáček's other operas, but the work is incredibly beautiful. Janáček created his own libretto for Vixen, and his score follows the natural rhythm of the Czech language particularly brilliantly. Those rhythms, however, are quite different from other Western languages, and many singers (and instrumentalists) have difficulty assimilating them. The orchestral colors are a feast for an ensemble of caliber, and Cleveland Orchestra rose to the challenge of this fascinating score superbly. The music that closes Act II was spectacular, with the choirs stationed throughout the balconies in Severance Hall. The three act opera was given with no intermissions.
In Vixen, animal characters converse with each other and with human characters as well. Ideally, these conversations should blend seamlessly, somewhat like a Walt Disney cartoon. Cleveland Orchestra's production actually takes a major step toward Disney by employing a digitally-animated scenic and dramatic concept. The front of the stage held the sizeable orchestra and the back of the stage had a wrap-around screen (in three panels) on which the animation was projected and through which singers put their heads (much like the carnival cut-outs of old) and sang, some with half-masks to give them their animal snouts and ears. The human characters acted on a small stage in front of that screen. That is what it was it looked like, but nothing can adequately describe the effect of the concept. The drawing style was something akin to well-illustrated children's books. The projections moved from panel to panel, somewhat like the old Cinerama projections, but the images seemed almost three-dimensional. The mosquito flew at the audience, becoming huge as it looked at us. It was these delightful touches that kept the audience totally engrossed. A human portraying a dog, scratching because of fleas, would lack humor, but in animation, it was clever and not distracting in the least. The famous scene in which the foxes wooed one another became a feast for the eyes while the orchestra bathed us with the stirring music. Even the curtain calls showed ingenuity, particularly when an animated Franz Welser-Möst took his bow, the real conductor placing his head through the appropriate hole in the screen.
Animation for the production was by Bill Barminski and Christopher Louie of the Walter Robot Studios; projection and lighting design by Jason Thompson; and costumes and makeup were by Closs-Farley, all held together by Sharon's inspired stage direction. Welser-Möst led the Cleveland Orchestra in a tight rendition of the work: animation and music stayed together miraculously well.
The cast was headed by Martina Jankova as the Vixen "Sharp Ears." The Czech soprano's voice soared through the high music seemingly with no effort, and she sounded completely committed to the text and her character. Bass-baritone Alan Held sang the Forester to perfection. His final scene was filled with the kind of humanity Janáček must have envisioned. The Fox was Jennifer Johnson Cano, who also assailed the high register easily. Her scene with Sharp Ears was always engaging and never just cute. Raymond Aceto sang and acted Haraschta (the poacher) quite well; animations helped clarify the action here, as Haraschta prepared to trap and then shoot Sharp Ears. Julie Boulianne sang Dog with great charm. Dashon Burton was both the Parson and Badger; his full bass-baritone could be easily heard, and he actually kept the priest a dimensional character. Tenor David Cangelosi, who was the Schoolmaster and the Mosquito, built the drunken scene (aided by projections that produced mild vertigo in the audience) to a beautiful climax.
Local singers, many of whom have sung major roles in Opera Cleveland and other local opera productions, filled out the cast, among them Brian Keith Johnson, who sang the Innkeeper with firm and vibrant tone, and Marian Vogel who took on several characters, memorably the Chief Hen and the Blue Jay. The involved singing of the Cleveland Orchestra Chamber Chorus and Cleveland Orchestra Children's Chorus filled Severance Hall. The capacity audience gave the production an immediate well-deserved standing ovation. Bravos were numerous — as were a few expressions of "Wow."
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