Welcome to Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center’s newest green space. Gigantic sunflowers and mottled lighting embellished the stage during the New York Philharmonic’s season finale run of The Cunning Little Vixen, a fantastical opera by Janacek about a clever fox and the creatures who love her. The performances marked the Philharmonic’s second collaboration with production team Giants Are Small, the first being last season’s outrageous vision of Ligeti’s modernist Le Grand Macabre. By comparison to that opera’s tales of post-apocalyptic farce, Vixen – which attempts to draw parallels between the lives of animals and peasant folk – may seem like something more for children.
And there were plenty of children onstage: fluttering butterflies, hopping frogs, crawling beetles and scampering fox cubs. The production included young performers from the Metropolitan Opera Children’s chorus and grown-ups from New York Choral Artists, though the real star was the orchestra, led with warmth and energy by Music Director Alan Gilbert. The result was an enchanting evening all-around, which nonetheless demonstrated the limitations of opera in Avery Fisher.
The work is made up of scenes from the life of Bystrouska – the cunning little vixen in question. We see her abduction from the woods when a forester takes a shine to her, her rough play with boys in the barnyard, how she dupes the hens into offering themselves as lunch, her courtship and marriage, her – spoiler alert! – death at the hands of a poacher, and the renewal of forest life. In between the lively animal scenes come the troubles of humankind: a schoolteacher who pines for a peasant girl, the forester’s sense of mortality, a parson’s loneliness.
Director Doug Fitch also designed the costumes, which served to strengthen Janacek’s connections between humans and animals: a bunny was dressed in white cargo pants, white sweatshirt, and, of course, a ski mask; green bicycle helmets stood in for fly’s eyes; and a gaggle of laying hens wore stuffed red gloves over their maquiladora kerchiefs and housewife dresses. Still, while anyone could get a kick out of seeing things in their closet transformed into a magical costume, compared with Grand Macabre’s goddesses on stilts and floor-length spider hats, cargo pants were a bit of a downer.
But the excellent cast could have performed in nightgowns and still have triumphed. Alan Opie was a sensitive and touching Forester, singing with colors and inflection that matched the original Czech. (The production was in English with supertitles projected onto a blue silken scrim. With a very wordy libretto to follow, they might as well have sung in Czech.)
Isabel Bayrakdarian sang the title role with deft physicality and perfectly playful character. I first heard her sing some ten years ago in a recital at Carnegie Hall with the Marilyn Horne Foundation, where her voice sounded pretty but couldn’t be heard very well in the great space. Avery Fisher was no more supportive, but she was only one of several singers to be overpowered by Janacek’s lush orchestration and Gilbert’s enthusiastic rendition. There’s a reason why opera usually works better with the orchestra in the pit. Nonetheless, Bayrakdarian’s rich color and nimble movements made her a captivating vixen. She was well matched with mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand, who played her roguish boyfriend with Straussian warmth and impish character. Nothing was funnier than when the suitor brought the vixen the gift of a rabbit for breakfast, and Ms. Bayrakdarian tucked into it with animal appetite.
But the orchestra plays the largest role of the show, with long interludes without singing and several episodes intended for dance. It was during those moments when one longed for an opera house, replete with room for set changes and a corps de ballet. As it was, the simple set consisted of a few fabric trees, a low bridge surrounded by rushes, and a rustic table and stools that doubled as the vixen’s den. Karole Armitage choreographed a sweet solo dance for Emily Wagner, but the dragonfly’s dance with the rest of the child animals was not much more than some coordinated wing flapping.
Vixen is a true ensemble piece with practically no arias and few extended melodies for the singers, even the title role. With no role for an opera super star to strut her stuff, it is perhaps no wonder that the Met has never deigned to mount its own production. The voices often accompany the orchestra, which not only sets the mood and character but advances drama. While he was composing, Janacek transcribed bird and animal calls, and chirps and yelps run between stretches of folk-like Moravian tunes. Countless movie compoers owe their craft to Janacek’s ear for drama, with the character of a musical moment turning on a dime and long melodies sacrificed for sweeping gestures and driving pulses.
Still, craning one’s neck to see the action on the extended stage built for the show, one missed the larger-than-life splendor that comes from a production in an opera house. Moreover, an orchestra in the pit can produce a nuanced sound without overwhelming the singers, while an orchestra sitting steps behind the singers is dominant just by being musical. The advantage of performing opera in the concert hall is that listeners can finally revel in the wonderful sounds coming from the orchestra, without the distractions of a swooning diva. At times, I wished for strictly concert performance, with the best sets and costumes left to my imagination.
Yet with these creative collaborations, the Philharmonic is setting an example for the many orchestras around the country who are seeking to reinvent themselves as a locus for multi-media entertainment. If there were any new listeners among the sold-out crowds on Friday, they likely were swept away by the visuals and as by the music. But will they come back for a non-visual symphony?