Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen has been considered a good introductory opera for children. Over-emphasizing this may ingratiate the production team with a public of all ages but it certainly represents a departure from the composer’s intent. Vixen is, more than anything, an astonishing statement of acceptance of life’s cycle. An elderly artist, still very much in love with his much younger muse, Kamila Stöslová, is making peace with his unfulfilled dreams and the world. Like the Forester in the opera, he is fully conscious that most of his life is behind him. With suggestive lighting signed by Mark McCullough, E Loren Meeker’s Glimmerglass production tries to keep a balance between humoristic and emotional scenes, the former, such as the chicken ballet, being evidently the public’s favorites. The central element of Ryan McGettigan's imaginative sets was a huge hollowed tree with ribbon-like branches, neither realistically depicted, nor fully abstract. The scenery representing the hunter’s house and porch, the badger’s sett or the room in the inn were in the same vein. Erik Teague's inventive costumes and Eric Sean Fogel's choreography were on the Disneyesque side, although the latter gratuitously emphasized some laughable tics.

Olivia Barbieri, Amber Monroe , Michelle Arotsky, Kayla Siembieda, Gretchen Krupp and Rachel Kay © Karli Cadel
Olivia Barbieri, Amber Monroe , Michelle Arotsky, Kayla Siembieda, Gretchen Krupp and Rachel Kay
© Karli Cadel

One of the biggest issues with this production was the decision to perform in English. Since the Glimmerglass Festival is using projected texts the only true reason for a translation of the libretto is to make it easier for the singers to learn their roles. The Czech prosody is though so deeply connected to Janáček’s musical idiom that performing the opera in any other language diminishes this 20th-century masterpiece's expressive power. I can’t tell how faithful Kelley Rourke’s English libretto was to the original, but, occasionally, it certainly seemed precious. The composer wrote the libretto himself, based on a strip published in a local Brno paper. He was evidently captivated by the story and the illustrations (his original, annotated newspaper clippings still exist) describing the adventures of a scheming vixen named Bistrouška. It was an unconventional starting point for an unusual opera. The episodic nature of the serialized strip informed the structure of the opera itself: bearing such suggestive titles as “How Bistrouška was caught” or “Bistrouška in the farmyard”, different vignettes succeed almost seamlessly each other.

Alyssa Martin (Fox) and Joanna Latini (Vixen) © Karli Cadel
Alyssa Martin (Fox) and Joanna Latini (Vixen)
© Karli Cadel

The resulting work is one of tremendous fluidity, lacking arias and duets, with the orchestra having the main role. If the music of the village episodes is related to the earlier Janáček operas (Jenůfa or Káťa Kabanová) the interludes and the descriptions of the forest teeming with life are without precedent in the composer’s output. The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra, under Joseph Colaneri’s experienced hand, played accurately and with passion. The difficult brass passages sounded very clean. What was lacking was the experience bringing forward the special character of Janáček’s writing, not only the precise rhythmic patterns originating in the Czeck and Moravian folklore but also what the composer himself called “sčasovka” – individual fleeting moments that come and go.

Emma Novak (Frog) and Eric Owens (Forester) © Karli Cadel
Emma Novak (Frog) and Eric Owens (Forester)
© Karli Cadel

With its many little roles, The Cunning Little Vixen, is a good choice for Glimmerglass and its Young Artists Program. It’s true though that the roles were helping more the young interpreters to sharpen their acting skills then their legatos. As is usual, several were cast in multiple roles, the villager-animal pairings, underlined by the choice of costumes and props, being especially suitable for the opera’s message. Zachary Owen infused the Badger with the righteousness of the Parson. Kayla Simbieda surveyed her turf both as the Forester’s Wife and the Owl. With his walking stick, Dylan Morrongiello was both the inebriated Schoolmaster declaring his love for a sunflower and the Mosquito drunk on human blood. Gretchen Krupps doubled as the Head Hen and the Inkeeper’s Wife. Bass Wm. Clay Thompson served as both the Wolf and the initially ridiculed Harašta, the poacher who manages to almost accidentally kill the Vixen. In the title role, soprano Joanna Latini displayed a supple instrument and moved around with great ease. As her love interest, the Fox, the deeper voiced Alyssa Martin also showed promise.

The performance was dominated by the great bass-baritone Eric Owens, returning to Glimmerglass for his third season as Artist in Residence. His voice’s rich inflections, his capacity to express feelings without any hint of grandiloquence, and his dynamic range are still as extraordinary as ever. The Forester's final appearance, reminiscing about the old days when he roamed the woods holding hands with his loved one and commenting about nature’s renewal, was simply heart-wrenching.

***11