|Maestro Jorge Parodi and Cast Members of "Adventures of Vixen Sharp-Ears"|
It is difficult to believe that Leoš Janáček wrote his own libretto for The Adventures of Vixen Sharp-Ears based on a child's comic strip. As if a child could comprehend those deep philosophical ideas! The 1924 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.
The feisty Vixen is captured by the Forester who brings her home as a pet. When she attacks the rooster and hens, she is tied up. But she escapes in search of freedom and finds a mate. After a shotgun wedding, they start a family but she meets her sad end (as people also sometimes do) due to an overweening sense of invulnerability.
Staging this opera with its anthropomorphization is always a challenge. We have enjoyed productions at Juilliard, at the New York Philharmonic, and at Manhattan School of Music where we had a fine time at a production by the Summer Voice Program, done on a shoestring, a production that no one but us seems to remember.
The current production at Manhattan School of Music is definitely memorable! We were deeply affected by the inherent drama, elicited with keen imagination, consummate dedication, and hard work by Director Dona D. Vaughn. Janacek's muscular score was conducted by the gifted conductor Jorge Parodi who must have labored long and hard to have elicited such a superlative performance from undergraduate musicians. Janacek relied heavily on the winds and they came through with flying colors. Moravian folk melodies delighted the ear.
And the voices!!! Soprano Shantal Martin used her fine healthy instrument to scale the heights and underscore the expressiveness of her role. What is more, her acting was, well, fox-like. We believed her performance totally. We were so taken in that her death brought tears to her eyes. The idea of the poacher using her skin to make a muff for his bride made us glad that we were not wearing fur.
The role of the Forester, who captures her and brings her home to his family, was sung by baritone Michael Gracco who was just as convincing. His voice was smooth and eminently listenable and he created a character who was, if not terribly likable, terribly believable. There was a hint of sexualization in his interaction with the Vixen. He felt rejected when she escaped and had the vengefulness of a rejected lover.
His wife, mezzo-soprano Victoria Isneria, was angry about the new flea-ridden addition to the family, and perhaps a bit jealous. Later in Act III, the Forester reminisces about his romantic courtship but the direction made it clear that his current interest was in his dog and his rifle, not his wife. These are the little touches that make reality out of a fantastic story. Their two children Frantik (soprano Hannah Black) and Pepik (mezzo-soprano Montana York) tease the Vixen and the family dog (soprano Polixeni Tziouvaras) makes advances on her which she rejects, even though the dog tells her he is a song writer! Oh, the secret life of animals!
Once back in the forest, the Vixen meets her mate, the seductive but caring Gold-Spur, performed by soprano Victoria Falcone. The services of a parson Woodpecker (Hannah Black) are called for post-haste as the forest creatures are given to gossip, just another instance of animals being used to comment on bourgeois human life.
One doesn't hear much in the way of arias but the poacher Haraschta gets to sing two fine folk songs. Fortunately baritone Jose Maldonado has a splendid voice and made the most of it. Mr. Gracco closes the opera with a gorgeous paean to the peace of the forest.
We would need lots of pages to call attention to all the memorable scenes. The chorus of chickens accompanied by their rooster brought to mind a clutch of male-pleasing "escorts" ruled by a pimp. The rooster was performed by soprano Jihye Oh. The Vixen's proto-feminist lecture to these Stepford chickens was hilarious.
Dances choreographed by John-Mark Owen, whose work we have always admired, filled the stage with graceful members of the woodland community--Heeso Son's Butterfly, Ms. York's Frog, Sarah Schultz' Dragonfly, Ms. Isneria's Cricket, Alexandra Koutelos' Grasshopper, Claudilia Holloway's Jay, and Biran Egan's Mosquito. Their body movements were just about perfect.
Moving on to the human world, the scene in Pasek's inn was very well done and totally believable--men sitting around drinking, playing cards, and teasing one another. Pasek was sung by Mr. Egan. The lovelorn schoolmaster was sung by tenor Emmett Tross and the judgmental Parson was sung by bass Guanbo Su who also used his big bass for the role of the grumpy Badger who gets evicted from his home by the Vixen.
We liked the schoolmaster stumbling home intoxicated and hallucinating his lost love.
The courtship of Sharp-Ears by Gold-Spur was so well done we couldn't help comparing it to Act I of Puccini's La Boheme in which the prospective lovers try to impress one another humble-boasting about their lives.
There was so much about this production to cherish. The costuming by Summer Lee Jack was imaginative and colorful, telling so much about each character. Kate Ashton's set was simple--some sunflowers and a large tree trunk for the forest and a plain table and chairs for the Forester's home and Pasek's inn.
The program offered no credit for the translation which was the best we ever heard. Verbal accents marched in step with musical accents and avoided the displeasure we usually experience when an opera is not performed in its original language. Steven Jude Tietjen was credited as "Supertitles Author" and, since he is a writer, perhaps he adapted someone's translation. In any event, the titles were apt and witty.
We must also credit Assistant Director Annie Shikany who was responsible for the superb English diction coaching which made the titles superfluous. Every word was clear which is something we do not take for granted.
All in all, one could not have asked for anything more in an opera production. That they were all undergraduates is astonishing! We sat next to Catherine Malfitano who taught these gifted young artists in their Junior year so they were well on their way by the time they advanced to Dona Vaughn's Senior Opera Theater. If we were free we would happily return to see the other cast but, sadly, we are not.
If you can beg, borrow, or steal a ticket to one of the next three performances, you will be amply rewarded for your efforts. This one is a true winner!
(c) meche kroop