Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Little Foxes

ALTHOUGH RUDOLF TESNOHLÍDEK’S NOVEL about a resourceful, willful fox was presented as a comedy when serialized (with drawings) in 1920, composer Leoš Janáček decided to inform it with a more somber feeling when he turned it into the opera known in English as “The Cunning Little Vixen.” He also informed it with breathtaking glory, a sensual trip through his portrait of the natural world. Where humans dwell, however, is a realm of jealousy and unhappiness. The two worlds coexist very uncomfortably.

Joanna Latini and Zachary Owen
Photo by Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
At the start of the new Glimmerglass Festival production, the music shimmers as lights come up on an abstract glen in which native creatures rustle by. The music underpins the magic of the scene, and as dragonflies, cricket, and grasshopper gather, we’re swept into an anthropomorphic world that soon enough stops being singers in costume. Our belief in these apparitions turns them real, especially when the gun-wielding Forester enters and provides a too-human contrast.

Costume designer Erik Teague offers outrageous outfits for the animal world, but they stop well short of being too distracting. Likewise, Ryan McGettigan’s spare stage settings of forest, farm, and tavern provide enough to root us in a fantasyland, and set the two worlds apart with curves and curls in the natural expanse and, in the spaces where humans are found, an architecture of lines and angles.

Eric Owens, a Glimmerglass favorite (and artistic advisor) headlines as the Forester, but it’s a smaller role than his previous successes in Verdi’s “Macbeth” and Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars.” Smaller in stage time, perhaps, but huge in emotional content, as you’ll discover in the poignant finish of the piece. Owens’s voice is a thing of burnished beauty and he has a formidable presence, but his performance is nuanced, developing through the succession of relationships we witness, until the payoff at the end when I defy you to hold back the tears.

Among the woodland creatures is Dylan Morrongiello’s busy Mosquito, who lights on the Forester and taps a vein. The bug quivers behind tinted glasses in sensual frenzy (his walking-stick a stand-in for the proboscis), offering a touch of comedy, which wins the audience’s confidence that, whatever else happens here, the piece will be entertaining. Morrongiello doubles as the lovesick Schoolmaster, dabbing those same eyeglasses when in distress, and resembling (probably not coincidentally) the young Janáček.

The Forester grabs the titular Vixen as a pet – or a companion, at least, for his dog. Joanna Latini is a Glimmerglass Young Artist this season, making an unforgettable debut in the title role. She is brash; she’s wary. She’s impulsive enough to wreak havoc – particularly with a flock of chickens and their full-of-himself Rooster (fellow Young Artist Amber R. Monroe). Here’s what happens when humans “domesticate” other creatures: they turn into the barnyard equivalent of factory workers. But they’re played with hilarious accuracy, something to which I can attest thanks to my own backyard flock.

Eric Owens and Dylan Morrongiello
Photo by Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Our Vixen has no trouble evicting the grumpy Badger from his lair in order to occupy it herself; Zachary Owen, in a wonderfully lavish costume and wig, doubles (as do many others) as one of the humans, in this case the similarly grumpy Parson, who winds up similarly uprooted. Latini has a face that blazes from mischievous joy to passionate love with barely a flicker of change, and a similarly versatile voice. She incites the Forester’s chicken to flee their bondage with a fervor that transforms into ecstatic love during her second-act duet with the handsome Fox (Alyssa Martin), a duet as erotic as anything from “Tristan and Isolde.”

You might as well know going into this that the Vixen does not survive. Her death comes at the hands of Harašta, the poacher (a suitably pesante portrayal by Wm. Clay Thompson, who doubles as the Wolf), and, however much she may literally have been asking for it, it’s a devastating moment, brilliantly staged.

But it does open us to the opera’s finale, which occurs after the Forester moves from tavern to glen in a fraught transition: was it death or merely slumber that occurred? In any event, Owens brings all of his overwhelming power to this rich, beautiful scene, in which all the elements of design and choreography, come together with the music to transport us into this incredible world.

Director E. Loren Meeker (who helmed “La bohème” two seasons ago) and choreographer Eric Sean Fogel (last here with “Candide”) have brought this forest to life with wit and innovative dexterity. And conductor Joseph Colaneri satisfies the composer’s unique challenge to illuminate the score’s tricky rhythms and exotic-sounding modes while indulging its leafy lushness. This production is a triumph.

Performances continue at the Glimmerglass Festival through August 25, 2018.

The Cunning Little Vixen
Music and libretto by Leoš Janáček
Conducted by Joseph Colaneri
Directed by E. Loren Meeker
Choreographed by Eric Sean Fogel
The Glimmerglass Festival, Cooperstown, NY
Alice Busch Opera Theater, July 8, 2018

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