Review: ‘The Cunning Little Vixen’ by Leoš Janáček at West Edge Opera (****)

by Christine Okon

Nikola Printz and Amy Foote in “The Cunning Little Vixen.” Photo credit: Corey Weaver.
Nikola Printz and Amy Foote in “The Cunning Little Vixen.” Photo credit: Corey Weaver.

The world of the forest and the world of man meet common ground amidst the gravel and graffiti of Oakland’s abandoned 16th Street train station with West Edge Opera’s innovative production of Leoš Janáček’s opera “The Cunning Little Vixen.”

Based on a 1920’s Czech comic strip, “The Cunning Little Vixen” follows the adventures of “Sharp Ears,” a scrappy and savvy red fox who manages to escape capture, survive by her wiles, and live her life to the fullest until it is ended by a greedy poacher.

“The Cunning Little Vixen” begins and ends in a forest full of creatures of all sorts—badger, owl, woodpecker, dragonfly, frog, mosquito and more—each with their own purpose and agenda. The Piedmont children’s chorus adds special charm to these little animals of the forest as they sing and dance to Janacek’s lilting and sometimes discordant tunes, like distant carnival waltzes in an odd dream. Outside of the forest is the land of Man, full of bricks and guns and boring routine.

We meet the young and free Vixen (Soprano Amy Foote, projecting coyness and resolve) as she explores her world with awe and curiosity until she is captured by the Forester (bass-baritone Philip Skinner) who, typical of Man, assumes he is entitled to unfettered possession. What he really wants is to taste the freedom and joy the vixen exudes, something he has nearly forgotten. Foote and Skinner convey plaintive longing and apprehension, each in their own range.

We follow the vixen from young kit to mother. We see her fend for herself, speak her mind (there is a hilarious scene where she urges the docile chickens to rise up against the rooster oppressor), carve out her space, and get what she needs. She falls in love with a handsome Gold Fox (seductively played by Mezzo Soprano Nikola Printz), and, despite the peasant mentality forest gossip, they go on to have countless kits of their own.

Along with the Forester, the schoolmaster (Joseph Meyers) and preacher (Nikolas Nackley) bemoan opportunities missed, loves lost, and chances not taken as they drink to excess and stumble home in the dark forest where they mistake a glimpse of the vixen for a lost love.  But even when the greedy and slovenly poacher Harasta (Carl King) shoots the vixen so he can give his fiancé “new red muffs” from the fur, he does not end her spirit.  In the last scene, the Forester seeks to nap in the forest and imagines he sees the Vixen but finds out it is her daughter. He meets a frog who turns out to be the great grandson of the frog he met in Act I. He realizes with delight that things have come full circle, that if he cannot control the world he may as well exult in it.

Staging “The Cunning Little Vixen,” especially on such a tight stage, poses a challenge with choreography and blocking, resulting in some overcrowding. But the innovative lighting and projection that created a full moon and the illusion of the Sharp Ears and her Fox lover graffiti-tagging a sunflower and a heart was a fun nod to the inner urban canvas.

The costumes were delightful but not always identifiable as to the creatures they reflect, so it is helpful to review the story of the opera before seeing this play.

“The Cunning Little Vixen” has some of the loveliest and most charming music ever composed, blending strains of Moravian melodies with beautiful forest interludes. Janacek is celebrating his love of the Czech spirit, country and countryside, infusing the score with a sense of wonder, beauty, and defiance that we know will extend decades later. The orchestra, led by Jonathan Kuhner, was strong, sometimes stronger than the singers.

This ambitious production of “The Cunning Little Vixen” tries very hard to overcome the limitations of physical space. Audience members will need patience with the rows of metal folding chairs arranged at the same level which can be a problem if the guy in front of you is sporting a big man-bun. Nevertheless, if you’re up for the journey, you may want to accept West Edge Opera’s invitation to their unique approach to opera.

 

“The Cunning Little Vixen” continues at West Edge Opera through August 13, 2016. For further information, click here.

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Rating: ****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.

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“The Cunning LIttle Vixen,” by Leoš Janáček. Produced by West Edge Opera. Director: Pat Diamon. Music Director/Conductor: Jonathan Khuner. Choreographer: Liz Tenuto. Set: Sarah Phykitt. Costumes: Christine Cook. Projection Design: Jeremy Knight. 

 

Cast:

Vixen: Amy Foote. Fox: Nikola Printz. Forester: Philip Skinner. Parson/Badger: Nikolas Nackley. Mosquito/Schoolmaster: Joseph Raymond Meyers. Harasta: Carl King. The Dragonfly: Liz Tenuto. Lapak the Dog/Woodpecker: Deborah Rosengaus. Forester’s Wife/Owl: Rachel Rush. Rooster/Jay:  Leandra Ramm. Hen/Innkeeper’s Wife: Chelsea Hallow. Innkeeper: Peter Dennis. Young Vixen: Hannah Guyer. Frantik:  Jasmijn Janse. Pepik: Rosa Hochshild. Cricket: Margot Saulnier. Frog: Emely Perez.

 

 

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