We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Friday, May 3, 2013


Karen Vuong and Julia Bullock-photo by Nan Melville
We haven't shed tears at the opera since Violetta died, but we had tears streaming down our face at the conclusion of the Juilliard Opera's production of The Cunning Little Vixen.  It is difficult to believe that Leoš Janáček wrote his own libretto based on a child's comic strip.  As if a child could comprehend those deep philosophical ideas!  The 1926 work deals with man's relationship to the natural world and shows a deeply compassionate but unsentimental view of the cycles of birth and death.  There were also some anti-capitalist overtones to absorb.

Much credit for the emotional impact (as well as the aural delight) goes to the superior work of the singers of the Juilliard Opera who fulfilled the direction of Emma Griffin and to that of the musicians of the Juilliard Orchestra under the baton of Anne Manson.  The ensemble work was impressive yet each unique character stood out on his/her own merit.  Soprano Julia Bullock did everything right in her portrayal of the feisty vixen who outwits her captor in search of freedom, finds a mate, starts a family and meets her sad end (as people also sometimes do) due to an overweening sense of invulnerability.

Soprano Karen Vuong turned in a superior performance in the portrayal of the vixen's mate.  The foxy pair have a shotgun wedding when the vixen discovers she is pregnant and the neighbors are gossiping.  Bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock made a fine Forester who captures the vixen and treats her like a pet until her inborn qualities lead her to destroy his hens;  then he must tie her up like his dog (a fine Laura Mixter) and she must escape to the freedom of the forest.  Mezzo Lacey Jo Benter portrayed his wife who is somewhat intolerant of his bringing home strays.

Baritone John Brancy turned in another deeply felt and beautifully sung performance as Harašta the poacher who shoots the vixen (thus, the tears) because he wants a fur muff for his bride, the gypsy Terynka.

There is some comic relief in this production in the form of a gaggle of hens presided over by a rooster, played by a very funny Raquel González in male drag.  Soprano Mary Feminear was the "lead hen", and a fine "lead hen" she was. The hens all wore blond wigs and short nighties while the rooster wore suspenders.  We couldn't help thinking of a pimp with his group of "ladies of the evening".  Oh, the risks of anthropomorphization!

Tenor Martin Bakari played the drunken schoolmaster who also wanted to marry the gypsy Terynka; his drinking buddy the priest was played by sturdy bass Önay Köse who also played the badger whose home the vixen appropriated.  Elliott Hines, a bass-baritone, was the innkeeper with mezzo Rachael Wilson as his wife.  There was not a single vocal misfire in the cast.

Surprising was how effectively the cast performed Jeanne Slater's choreography; we were sure the dancers came from Juilliard's Dance Department and later learned that everyone came from the Vocal Arts Department.  If you think that watching dancers cavorting onstage in street clothes pretending to be woodland critters would be preposterous, guess again; the movement was entirely convincing.  And if you were wondering why woodland critters would be wearing street clothes, you would have to ask the director.   To us, the point being made was how much alike are humans and animals.  We humans are animals; we are not them but we are OF them.  Respect for their well-being is called for.  They live, they hunger, they mate, they thrive, they suffer, they die, just as we do.

This concept was further emphasized by Laura Jellinek's set which had nothing of the woodlands about it.  The humans and the animals all use the same brass bed, table and chairs; it was as if two worlds were sharing the same space.  The costumes by Jessica Trejos were witty and reinforced the same concept.

With all this visual and philosophical cud to chew, we still had the music in mind throughout; it held our ear with its Moravian folk melodies and interesting harmonic structure.  Although we would have preferred to hear it sung in Czech, we were quite pleased with the translation by Yveta Synek Graff and Robert T. Jones; the right syllables seemed to fall on the right beats of the music.  The jarring problems of most translations were completely avoided.

Major kudos to the Juilliard Opera and Orchestra for bringing this work to vivid life!

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