Let’s say it right up front: the Cleveland Orchestra’s new production of Leoš Janáček’s enigmatic fable of the cycle of nature, The Cunning Little Vixen, is a triumph for all concerned. The brilliantly imaginative interaction of cartoon illustration, digital video, live performers and the Cleveland Orchestra, with Franz Welser-Möst conducting was inspired, returning the story to its origin as a 1920 serialized comic strip. Příhody lišky Bystroušky (“The Adventures of Vixen Sharp-Ears”) is part comedy, part tragedy, with elements suitable for children, but other serious adult themes. This production masterfully wove those elements into a complex fabric of art, music and technology.

The Cunning Little Vixen in Cleveland © Roger Mastroianni
The Cunning Little Vixen in Cleveland
© Roger Mastroianni

The Cunning Little Vixen is problematic to stage: most of the characters are animals and insects who converse, gossip, and misbehave; the humans who inhabit the environs of the forest influence the creatures. In operatic terms, there is not a lot of singing and no traditional arias. The vocal lines follow the patterns of spoken Czech, presented here with concise English supertitles. The Cleveland producers’ solution was ingenious: the firm Walter Robot Studios was commissioned to create an opera-length digitally animated video that responds to the subtleties of Janáček’s score. The singers portraying the creatures, and wearing masks designed by Cristina Waltz, pop their heads out of “port holes” in a blank white triptych that surrounds the three walls of the stage and forms the projection screen. The designers have coordinated precisely the projections with the music, so that the singers’ heads appear as part of the projected animated bodies. The human protagonists, the Forester (stentorian bass-baritone Alan Held) and his wife, the Parson (bass Dashon Burton), the Schoolmaster (tenor David Cangelosi) and the poacher Harašta (sung with broad comedy by bass Raymond Aceto) appeared live on the stage in costumes designed by Ann Closs-Farley.

Sometimes live action merged with the animations, for instance early in the opera when the Forester captures the Vixen (sung with tireless energy and beauty by high soprano Martina Janková), the Forester’s hand becomes a huge cartoon image reaching across the screen to grab the Vixen. Later the Vixen dreams of becoming a dancing girl, which is easily portrayed in video, but probably not very convincing if it were presented live. Likewise, the Schoolmaster, wandering home in a drunken stupor, thinks that a waving sunflower is his lost love Terynka. The morphing of sunflower to the image of a beautiful woman was magical. The images on screen were endlessly fascinating, but always enhancing the music and text. Stage director Yuval Sharon and  the designers clearly had collaborated very closely with the musicians. What was perhaps most remarkable about this production was that it all worked flawlessly, with no obvious technical glitches.

© Roger Mastroianni
© Roger Mastroianni

At only one scene in the opera do the Vixen and the Fox (mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano, in an alluring performance) appear in costume on stage, when they have a scene of seduction, this opera’s version of a love duet. It was a mark of the skill of all of the singers who portrayed the animals that they were dependent upon their heads and voices to illuminate their characters. In several scenes the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus was deployed from various parts of the Severance Hall auditorium, where they sang with great precision and accuracy.

The orchestral music of The Cunning Little Vixen is gorgeous, imitating sounds of nature with chirps and tweets, Janáček’s trademark ostinati, as well as many passages of shimmering beauty. The Cleveland Orchestra was meant to perform this work, and Welser-Möst is at his best when conducting opera. The orchestra occupied most of the stage platform, which favored the orchestral sound; the live singers performed on a narrow platform far upstage. Balances were remarkably good considering the distance between singers and audience. Only in a few cases were some of the female and child soloists inaudible.

At the end of the story, the Vixen is shot by Harašta (characterized in the program booklet as a poultry dealer; in other character lists he is often referred to as a poacher). But Vixen Sharp-Ears and the Fox have produced many offspring who continue the adventures. The Forester misses his friend the Parson, who has moved away, but he finds solace in the beauty of the forest. Life continues.

At the curtain calls, even Franz Welser-Möst got into the animation; the rest of the cast had taken their bows, when a cartoon image of the conductor appeared on the screen, the porthole opened, and out popped his head. He then did arrive live on stage to accept the acclaim of the large audience. Performances of The Cunning Little Vixen occur three more times this week. It is not to be missed!