Saturday marked the opening night of the The Cleveland Orchestra’s 100th season, yet apart from the façade of Severance Hall being draped in centennial banners, matters were decidedly down-to-business, with the high level of music-making the only celebration necessary. The repertoire of choice for this milestone evening was delightfully off-kilter in Janáček’s 1923 opera The Cunning Little Vixen. This was in fact an encore presentation of Yuval Sharon’s ingenious production, previously given in 2014 when it garnered stellar reviews – an assessment to which I can only concur.

The Cleveland Orchestra's stage projections © © Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra
The Cleveland Orchestra's stage projections
© © Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

In a nod towards its origins as a comic strip by Rudolf Těsnohlídek and Stanislav Lolek, this staging of The Cunning Little Vixen was achieved largely through animation, projected onto a massive trifold screen that wrapped the back of the stage in forced perspective. A small platform on which the human characters acted was placed in front of the screen, while the animals poked their heads through peepholes in the screen, with the rest of their bodies rendered digitally. The use of animation solved some of the more unwieldly stage directions (for instance, the Frog jumping on the nose of the Forester), and further provided an almost childlike simplicity in the wake of the plot’s contemplative and sometimes tragic moments. This dichotomous tension was duly emphasized throughout the performance. Front and center was the orchestra with music director Franz Welser-Möst, and rightfully so, as in spite of a stellar vocal cast they proved to be the true stars of the evening.

A projected image of the Severance Hall organ faded into a forest scene as the prelude began, yet the prevalence of nervous trills hinted that this wasn’t an entirely peaceful idyll. The music surged into a colorful portrait of the woods, perhaps echoing Wagner’s Waldweben, but not without Janáček’s unmistakably idiosyncratic stamp, a daunting language which the orchestra has mastered with an astonishing fluency. Interludes for the orchestra alone – again, having them as the focal point paid off – marked the passage of time, and the first such selection was characterized by a strikingly angular theme. As the titular Vixen, one couldn’t have asked for a stronger advocate than soprano Martina Janková, her light, limpid tone coyly capturing the intended capriciousness. The opposite end of the vocal spectrum was also held with aplomb in the sonorous depths of Alan Held’s bass-baritone as the Forester.

Foxy love between Gold-Spur and Sharp-Ears © © Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra
Foxy love between Gold-Spur and Sharp-Ears
© © Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Passages for the celesta and bass clarinet broadened the color palette at the opening of the second act, and shortly thereafter the audience was introduced to the Badger. Despite his imposing presence given by bass-baritone Dashon Burton (who would appear shortly thereafter in the role of the Parson), he was easily outsmarted by the Vixen who usurped ownership of his home. Cunning, indeed. Later in the act, night fell, and the chorus sang from offstage to create a sublimely mysterious atmosphere wherein the Vixen met the Fox. The latter was portrayed by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, her mellifluous tone a fitting complement to Janková. For the first time, the two foxes emerged from behind the screen into full view, a wise staging decision in drawing one’s attention to the couple.

The clarinet conveyed the Vixen’s coquettishness, while the sumptuous melody in the solo violin was filled with yearning. In the ensuing wedding scene, the chorus was repositioned to the balcony, creating a veritable surround-sound effect. A final duet between the Vixen and the Fox was to be had in the last act before fate halted their aspirations, the Vixen falling victim to Harašta (portrayed with vigor by bass Andrew Foster-Williams). Despite taunting him, this time she was not cunning enough. While this was a tragic moment to be sure, I was also struck by its apparent nonchalance – this was not the first time the crosshairs have been centered on her, and there was a certain amor fati in her resignation to the inevitable.

The concluding scene – which, quite poignantly, Janáček requested be performed at his own funeral – was a pensive meditation on the ebb and flow of time. The Forester, now animated as if in unity with the animals, returned to the woods and encountered the Vixen’s child and the grandson of the Frog. While forceful, the ending served to convey the cyclical nature of life, perhaps here even being an allegory for generations that have come and gone during the now century-long tenure of The Cleveland Orchestra.  

*****