Generally, opera doesn’t give old age much of a look-in, but the closing scene of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, written in Janáček’s old age, is an exception, as the Forester muses on the passing of time and the renewing cycle of life. In today’s Juilliard School production, Aubrey Allicock gave us the most touching and thoughtful of renderings. Through the whole opera, his voice was a delight to listen to: gloriously full, rich and smooth, with the power to cut through the orchestra and fill the Juilliard’s 900-seater Peter Jay Sharp Theater. In coming years, I expect to see more of Allicock in larger houses.

Karen Vuong as Fox, Julia Bullock as Vixen © Nan Melville
Karen Vuong as Fox, Julia Bullock as Vixen
© Nan Melville

The Sharp Theater has wonderful acoustics, which undoubtedly helped us to enjoy an orchestral performance of great clarity, under the baton of Anne Manson. Janáček’s score is packed with colour from brass and woodwind instruments, and we could hear every brushstroke from an extensive palette, perfectly placed in pitch and time. It was also a performance which underlined the score’s rhythmic variation with its folk-infused dance rhythms, and which was vivacious to a fault: at times, I felt a bit rushed and wanted some more space and time in which to enjoy Janáček’s lyricism.

While Allicock’s Forester stood out from the crowd, there were also performances of great promise from Julia Bullock as Sharp-Ears the Vixen, and Karen Vuong as the Fox. Their duet in Act II isn’t a showy piece but calls for a great deal of character, and I was thoroughly immersed in the interplay between Bullock - feminine, strong but skittish - and Vuong, who did a wonderful job of navigating Janáček’s unusual treatment of an ardent, enamoured male with a high female voice, both in acting and singing. Bullock was excellent throughout, giving us a wide variety of expression while navigating with aplomb challenging vocal lines that leap around the register.

The subsequent scene in which the couple lose count of their cubs and laugh at the ineptness of the Forester’s trap was cutely done and one of the highlights of a staging that was often difficult to follow and must have baffled anyone who didn’t know the opera. With no animal costumes - pretty floral summer dresses for the girls, candy stripes and bright colours for the boys - only choreography and head-dresses served to distinguish one animal from another. For the most part, the head-dresses weren’t nearly substantial enough or sufficiently distinctive to make this clear, nor were the differing movements, so I found it almost impossible to pick out Mosquito from Frog from Grasshopper from Woodpecker. It was a big ensemble who displayed no shortage of energy, but I would have hoped for something clearer. Laura Jellinek’s set was pleasant to look at but didn’t enlighten me further: everything was in a slightly anonymous indoor space whose main feature was a large brass bed (indications being given in the first act that this is all in a dream of the Forester); the only concession to a forest being backdrops viewed through a couple of small windows.

The Cunning Little Vixen has a very large number of minor roles, which are often doubled up in professional companies but which were almost all sung by different performers here. This is great for giving a large number of singers proper stage experience, but makes it more difficult to talent-spot: aside from the three main roles, no-one really gets enough airtime to shine. All of the singing was up to a good standard, with baritone John Brancy (as the poacher Harašta) getting the most chance to shine of the smaller roles.

While I may have been disappointed by costumes and settings, I was generally impressed by Emma Griffin's direction of movement around the stage and acting. Stage movement was plentiful and vivacious for the scenes with the animals (as ever, much amusement was provided by the scene in which the farmyard chickens cluster around the ill-fated protection of the cockerel), while the drinking scenes at Mr. Pásek’s inn were well characterised. The opera school productions I’ve reviewed in London have always seemed exceptional value for money: you’re seeing a product approaching professional quality on a smaller stage where you can get far closer to the performers. The Peter Jay Sharp Theater is a notably larger space than the music school theatres in London, but one with immaculate acoustics, and the general quality of performance was high. There were several empty seats: given the chances to see their stars of tomorrow and the relatively modest ticket prices, I think New Yorkers are missing out on a bargain.