One distinguishing trait of great art is its sense of inevitability. After seeing the Cleveland Orchestra’s encore production of Leos Janáček’s “The Cunning Little Vixen,” it’s hard to imagine the opera being staged any other way.
Janáček’s folksy, modal score uses extensive orchestral interludes between scenes. For opera, a medium as theatrical as it is musical, these can be problematic. How does one fill several minutes of an opera without singing or acting? Enter the stunning animations created by Bill Barminski and Christopher Louie of Walter Robot Studios. From the very first notes of the opera, the animations, projected onto three giant panels to create a continuous image across the width of the Severance stage, provide a level of continuity and immersion that would arguably be diminished with only Janáček’s score to thread the scenes together.
The economy and simplicity of Janáček’s story gives the opera a tautness that can withstand a variety of interpretations. It also gives the director a great deal of control over the deeper message audiences will take home. Director Yuval Sharon elevated Vixen “Sharp-Ears” and her animal cohort by portraying them in vivid animations. The forlorn Forester, portrayed by baritone Alan Held, remained tethered to the harrowing flatness of corporeal reality, ironically two-dimensional compared to the vibrant, animated world around him.
As in the original 2014 production, the voices behind the animals poked their heads through round cutouts in the screen. The effect was surprisingly seamless. The human characters were also integrated with the projections. As the Schoolmaster left the pub at the end of a night spent playing cards and drinking, an actual panel in the screen slid open and he stepped into the pencil-drawn scenery. The entire forest spun and swirled as the Schoolmaster drunkenly stumbled home.
The fast-paced romance between soprano Martina Janková’s Vixen and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano’s Fox got hearty laughs from the audience, as did the sharp exchanges between Vixen and the Forester. There were also some knowing chuckles as the Vixen’s plot to devour the hens—in the guise of a populist rhetoric-laden speech—struck a timely chord.
“Who does the labor? Who gets the profit?” Vixen cries. “Too long you’ve suffered oppression. Demand freedom now!”
The Cleveland Orchestra Chamber Chorus and Children’s Chorus added further depth to the production as they reacted to the onstage action from different parts of the hall, seemingly speaking for the audience or the forest itself.
Overall, the strength of the story, the simple beauty of Janáček’s score and the seamless production transcended any individual performance. The opera’s poignant symmetry is itself a statement about the ephemerality of everything; it all ends back where it began. For those of us who missed it the first time around, the gratitude for another chance to experience this production made the evening even more special.
The final performance of “Cunning Little Vixen” is Tuesday, September 26 at 7:30 p.m. at Severance Hall.