Arts & Events

New: Janáček’s CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN at West Edge Opera

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday July 31, 2016 - 10:50:00 AM

Kicking off their 2016 Summer Season, West Edge Opera opened with Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen on Saturday, July 30, at West Oakland’s abandoned train station. Coming on the heels of San Francisco Opera’s beautifully sung Jenufa by Janáček, The Cunning Little Vixen shows us another side of this erstwhile composer whose musical and cultural roots lie deep within his native Moravian soil. Whereas Jenufa explores Moravian peasant culture, Vixen examines the fertile life of the animals and humans who live in the Moravian forests. Vixen is thus a kind of Aesops fable, in which animals have human characteristics, and the humans, well, they take on quite a few animal characteristics.  

With Set Design by Sarah Phykitt, Vixen evokes the forest. Large trees frame either side of the stage, their branches reaching high into the sky and seeming to reach even higher by means of the shadows cast upwards from imaginative lighting on the branches from Lighting Designer Kevin August Landesman. As the opera proceeds from one scene to the next, the lighting frequently changes hue, offering now bright Summer sunlight, now again somber shade. These changes in coloration also seem to evince both the changing seasons and the changing moods of the opera’s action, from lively, light-hearted joy in summer to the somber reality of the Vixen’s sudden death when shot by a hunter, then back again, cyclically, to life-affirming joy in Spring when the Vixen’s young cub frolics at the close of the opera. In Vixen, Janáček celebrates nature and renewal. 

After a brief orchestral prelude conducted by Music Director Jonathan Khuner, the opera opens on a forest alive with activity. Musically, Janáček evokes the croaking of frogs, the buzzing of a mosquito, the chirping of a cricket, and the whirring of a dragonfly. Choreographer Liz Tenuto, who dances the part of the dragonfly, whirls about the stage, her wings suggested by a long white train billowing out behind her. Various animals played by children bustle here and there, wearing imaginative costumes from Costume Designer Christina Crook and her assistant Alice Ruiz. The human presence in the forest is represented by the Forester, beautifully sung by veteran bass Philip Skinner. The Forester, as drawn by Janáček, is simply a symbiotic partner of the animal life in the forest. Although he carries a gun and eventually succeeds in trapping the Vixen, the Forester clearly appreciates the animals. Indeed, when he traps the Vixen, he seems to fall in love with this foxy female, though he already has a wife, sung here in a minor role by Rachel Rush, who doubles as an owl.  

As the Vixen, soprano Amy Foote was outstanding. Her voice rang forth clear and bright, and she moved about the stage with bouncy agility, suggesting the quickness of a fox. Aware of her attractiveness, the Vixen cozies up to the forester after he traps her. She also fights off the attempts of the Forester’s dog, Lapák, who tries to mount her. The Vixen also has to endure the attempts of the Forester’s young sons, Pepík and Frantík, to poke her with sticks. Using her cunning, and only baring her teeth occasionally, the Vixen adjusts to life among the humans. When she observes the rooster lording it over the hens in dictatorial fashion, mating with each hen one after another, the Vixen becomes indignant at this blatant patriarchy. Director Pat Diamond stages the interactions between the rooster and hens quite imaginatively, with the rooster strutting proudly about while the hens abruptly thrust their heads forward or to the side as chickens invariably do. Incensed by the hens’ subservience to the cock of the run, the Vixen intercedes, as a fox in the henhouse will do, and kills the cock. Then she escapes, having dreamt of a male fox who unties the rope which has limited her movement in captivity. Her dream thus becomes reality, and henceforth she lives free and wild. Needing a home, the Vixen uses her proverbial cunning to trick a badger, sung here by baritone Nikolas Nackley, into abandoning his burrow, and she moves in.  

The scene switches to a forest tavern where the Forester drinks with his friends, the schoolmaster, sung by tenor Joseph Raymond Meyers and the parson, sung by baritone Nikolas Nackley. The friends regale themselves with tales of past hijinks, though the Forester gets ribbed about losing his Vixen. Meanwhile, the Vixen meets a handsome male fox, who courts her quite respectfully. On their second meeting, the fox, eloquently sung by mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz, tells the Vixen she is beautiful, and that he has fallen in love with her. At first, the Vixen is confused. “Am I beautiful?” she asks herself. Turning to the fox, she asks, “What about me do you find beautiful?” The fox, in an ironic touch by Janáček, replies, “I love you not for your beautiful face or your body but for your soul.” With this assurance, the Vixen agrees to go off with the fox for lovemaking in the depths of the forest. A bit later, when she whispers that she is pregnant, the fox insists that he will marry her immediately to legitimize their union. A wedding ceremony is presided over by the badger/parson with all the animals in attendance.  

Now a new character enters, a hunter, Harašta, robustly sung by baritone Carl King. The hunter stalks the forest seeking the Vixen. She espies Harašta and decides to taunt the hunter, confident in her cunning and quick agility. She dodges him several times until, finally, she shows herself once too often, and he manages to shoot her. The Vixen falls dead on the spot.  

The scene shifts to the forest tavern, where the schoolmaster is drunk. The Forester, drinking heavily, acknowledges sadly that with the Vixen’s death he has lost his girlfriend. The innkeeper’s wife comments that Harašta’s wife now sports a new muff of fox fur. Seeking comfort, the Forester retreats to the forest, where he falls asleep. Before falling asleep he marvels at the light and notes that Spring is here to renew the forest life. Awakened by the rustling movements of a fox cub, the Forester immediately sees the resemblance of the cub to the Vixen, and he smiles with pleasure at this cyclical renewal of nature and the life of the forest, as Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen closes on this joyful note. As performed by West Edge Opera in an excellent production, this Janáček fable was utterly delightful.