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.

Thursday, August 24, 2017


Hyungjoo Eom (photo by Brian Long)

Rachel Hall (photo by Brian Long)
Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble has mounted an incredibly moving production of Leos Janacek's comic/tragic opera which has delighted opera goers for nearly a century. We have written about its origins and composition a number of times and readers are encouraged to enter the title in the search bar if they are curious.

At this moment, however, we prefer to focus on this production, which offered new insights, thanks to the thoughtful direction of Ashraf Sewailam. It is auspicious when a singer takes on the job of directing since he seems to know exactly what to do with the singers onstage. Mr. Sewailam is himself a bass-baritone.

We have seen and enjoyed this opera at least four times in the past couple years but were not prepared for the intense emotional impact of this production. Mr. Sewailam's connection with the piece was unmistakable and, consequently, so was ours. In this battle between the world of mankind and the world of nature, our heroine loses her life in a tragically senseless fashion and the hero is transformed by his experience.

Not only is the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth illuminated but also we are allowed to examine the activities of two-legged creatures through the eyes of those with four (or even six) legs. These creatures are anthropomorphized such that we in the audience get the opportunity to examine our own behavior and to raise vital questions about our existence on this planet Earth.

Power and politics also get explored in a new way. The libretto shows evidence of Marxist thought (the wealthy badger has no right to a big home all for himself when there is room for an entire fox family) and proto-feminism (Vixen Sharp-ears tries to liberate the subservient hens from the domination of the entitled rooster).

There are two scenes of marriage--one between the Vixen and her Fox, prompted by her pregnancy and woodland gossip--the other between the poacher Harasta and the gypsy Terynka. The former union is one of mutual respect and caring, taking place after a very human and tender courtship; the latter union involves the groom "buying" his wife with (what else?) a fox pelt and an act so symbolic and so affecting that we will not divulge it here. We want you, dear reader, to see this opera and experience the shocking act for yourself. It may have something to do with Mr. Sewailam's Egyptian background.

Not only is the storytelling way more compelling than usual, but the musical values were of equal quality in every respect. The sixteen-piece Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble Festival Orchestra responded to David Stech's vibrant conducting of Jonathan Dove's score reduction, giving Janacek's music all the right accents of Moravian folk melodies.

It was quite a feat for the young singers to learn the opera in Czech and our gratitude for this labor is boundless. There is nothing like hearing opera in its original language, and especially so in Czech; the marriage between word and music was as well balanced as that between the Vixen and the Fox!

For those of you who don't know the story, a Forester brings home a fox cub who is subjected to disdain from his wife and beatings from his children. In Mr. Sewailam's version, it is evident that his feelings for her are almost romantic. Like a bereft lover, he becomes angry when she runs away and keeps looking for her.

She falls in love and starts a family. She is strong, independent, and defiant. She outwits the poacher Harasta but eventually he shoots her and takes her pelt for his bride.  The Forrester grieves for her but consoles himself with nature and his awareness of the life cycle.

We haven't heard soprano Rachel Hall since her apprenticeship at Santa Fe Opera four years ago when we applauded her Norina. Her artistic growth is notable and we enjoyed her warm and rich soprano in the title role. Her phrasing honored the sound of the language and her acting was completely committed.

As the Forrester, we admired bass-baritone Hyungjoo Eom for his affecting portrayal as well as for his substantial sound. We have heard him a number of times in the past couple of years and have been impressed by his versatility.

We enjoyed soprano Stephanie Kim Johnson in the role of the Vixen's mate. Although the role is generally performed by a mezzo, there was still a nice contrast with Ms. Hall's voice and a meaningfully tender portrayal.

Summoned at the last minute as a replacement for the role of the Dragonfly was Brittany Goodwin, director of La Calisto (which we will see tonight).  That girl can dance! So much talent in such a petite person!

Tenor Jeremy Brauner made a fine Schoolmaster, garnering laughs as he stumbled home drunkenly with his cane, confusing a sunflower for the lusted-for Terynka. He was even funnier as a mosquito, thanks to some clever use of props.

Soprano Zoe Marie Hart (well known to us from Utopia Opera) did well as the young Vixen. As the family dog Lapak, mezzo-soprano Inbal Milliger created a believable canine and sang with substantial tone.

Harasta, the devious poacher,  was sung well by baritone Joshua Miller.

Kristi Esch successfully employed her deep voice to portray the Forrester's disagreeable wife. Bass Brian Alvarado doubled as the grumpy Badger and the Greek-quoting Parson who once had a secret love.

Camilo Estrada took the role of Pasek, the tavern keeper; his wife Paskova was sung by Lisa Flanagan who also played the humorous hen Chocholka.

The singers who took on several small roles were also fine, including Samantha Scully, Lauren Glaves, Sarah Daniels, and Lisa Flanagan.

Much credit for the success of the production goes to Costume Designer Claire Townsend who put streetwear to good use by mixing pieces eclectically and cleverly to create costumes that worked well and suited each character. Makeup and Hair Design by Georgina Eberhard completed the illusion.

Scenic Designer You-Shin Chen made much of little--some hedges and a ramp, a table and chairs. It was the clever use of props that put us into a world of make-believe.

Were you waiting for the obligatory quibble?  Here it is. Harasta's use of a pistol seemed wrong, as did the one-time use of iPhone and iPad.

There will be two more performances--Friday night and Sunday matinee. You would do well to try to snag a ticket for this illuminating production. You may leave at the end with tears in your eyes (as we did) but they will be blissfully cathartic.

(c)  meche kroop

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