Friday, February 11, 2011

Foxy lady

Vixen Sharp-Ears and her brood. Photo by J.J. Bates.
I'm always torn over productions like Boston Opera Collaborative's The Cunning Little Vixen (at left, through Sunday at Mass. College of Art). On the one hand, Leoš Janáček's opera is a wonderful one, and surprisingly, many of its deepest themes come clear in the BOC version. On the other hand, I have to admit the singing is adequate but uneven, and so is the orchestral playing.

So you have to go in appreciating the constraints of an ambitious, but still basically volunteer, organization like  Boston Opera Collaborative.  When a company's reach exceeds its grasp, I feel I have to say so.  But - and this is rather a big "but" - I can't pretend I didn't enjoy The Cunning Little Vixen.  Those who know the opera (as well as those who don't) will appreciate that its spirit is captured eloquently here, despite the variable technique of some of its performers.

The Cunning Little Vixen may be the only great opera adapted from a comic strip - but either comic strips used to be a whole lot more profound than they are now, or Janáček worked a miracle with his source.  For while Vixen certainly plays well as a whimsical piece for children, it's also a haunting meditation on mortality for adults.  Indeed, for the great Janáček, who was seventy-something when he wrote the score, the adventures of "Sharp-Ears," as she's known in the original strip, clearly formed the basis for a fond farewell to the joys of romance and youth (and maybe life itself).

That strange yin-yang of youth and age floating in the opera's atmosphere makes it unforgettable (and the hummable melodies that Janáček penned for Sharp-Ears don't hurt, either).  The surprise is that stage director Roxanna Myhrum captures nearly perfectly this rueful mix.  She's helped immensely by witty costumes and puppets provided by costume designers Deirdre McCabe Gerrard and Lauren Sack, and scenic designer Olivia Brownlee.  And while Myhrum's cast is variable, she has solid sopranos in her leads, Erin M. Smith and Natalie Polito - and Ms. Smith, it turns out, is  also a stylish actress.  There were other good acting turns in the company - I was amused by Daniel Schwartz's Badger, for instance - but fewer outstanding vocal performances.  To be fair, however, the Tower Auditorium at Mass. College of Art is a hideous place to sing, and the performers had to project over an orchestra playing without a pit.  Meanwhile the dance numbers (yes, there's dancing too!), choreographed by Gabrielle Orcha, were sweetly performed but a little repetitive.

Down in that non-pit, music director LidiyaYankovskaya did give a good account of the score (and the orchestral reduction she was working from is a lovely one), but the playing didn't always cohere - as is often the case with volunteer orchestras, she had a solid string section,  but more variable winds and brass.  Such gaps may ruin the experience for operatic elitists, but for other fans, a chance to see a solid version of this charmer may outweigh those concerns.  And certainly this production serves well as an introduction to the form for children - even its bittersweet ending (warning: poor Sharp-Ears meets an untimely end) will give them a hint that, you know, things don't always turn out that well at the opera.

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