At the end of March and beginning of April, the Manhattan School of Music (MSM) Senior Opera Theater presented a run of four double-cast performances of Leoš Janácek’s “Príhody lišky Bystroušky,” usually billed as “The Cunning Little Vixen,” when given in English, but here called “Adventures of Vixen Sharp-Ears,” after Rudolf Tesnolídek’s novel, conducted by Jorge Parodi in a chamber orchestra reduction by “Flight” composer Jonathan Dove; staged by Artistic Director of Opera Dona D. Vaughn; and sung in Norman Tucker’s English translation of Janácek’s words. The third performance, in MSM’s intimate Alan M. and Joan Taub Ades Performance Space, on March 31, featuring the opening night cast, is considered here.
In “Vixen,” a model of anthropomorphism, the animals essentially act like people, while the people often act like animals, in an idyllic pantheistic world, charming, as thoughtfully staged by Vaughn, but not shying away from depicting aging and death as inevitable parts of the natural life-and-death cycle.
Shantal Martin, as Vixen Sharp Ears (Bystrouška), displayed a lovely lyric soprano, with the potential to move into such spinto roles as Strauss’ Empress and Arabella, Mozart’s Fiordiligi, and Barber’s Vanessa—eventually. She delivered a sly feminist speech to hens ruled over by a macho rooster, just before killing them all, and waxed rhapsodic about her life in the forest, before and after dwelling at the Forester’s home, and about her handsome suitor. Victoria Falcone disclosed a vibrant mezzo-soprano as the swaggering Fox Goldenstripe (Zlatohrbítek), circling the Vixen he’s hot for, not listening to a word of her chattering, and truly devastated after she’s been slain. Parodi’s players shone in the music of the foxes’ courtship; their wedding, which got all the animals cheerfully singing and dancing; and their mature love.
Michael Gracco revealed a handsome, resonant baritone as the Forester, Vixen’s human step-parent, sympathetically in tune with Nature, despite his gun and his sarcasm, and unusually, as seen by Vaughn, dying at the end, as Vixen did earlier. It’s the end of his, and the opera’s, story that most choked up this listener, reflecting, Vaughn explained, our own concerns with aging and mortality. The colorful first act interlude, depicting Forester and Vixen in a moment of peace, at one with Nature, before all hell breaks loose with the gullible, knitting and egg-laying hens, was another of Parodi and the orchestra’s outstanding efforts.
Tenor Emmett Tross and bass Guanbo Su played human characters, the Schoolmaster and Parson respectively, who take themselves oh-so-seriously, but are figures of fun for the audience after all. Sonorous Su also played the pompous badger, whom Vixen pisses off and literally pisses out of his den, not such a different figure from his parson. José Maldonado lent a strong lyric baritone to the part of Haraschta, the poacher not only of animals, but also of fickle Terynka, the Schoolmaster’s intended.
Heeso Son (the Butterfly), Montana York (the bespectacled frog), Sarah Schultz (the Dragonfly), Alexandra Koutelos (the Grasshopper), and Victoria Isneria (the Cricket) began the opera with a gracefully ballet, choreographed by John-Mark Owen. Lyric mezzo Isneria’s Cricket was, in a knowing Vaughn touch, present when the Forester made plans to lie to his wife, heralding her later appearance as the wife herself. Polixeni Tziouvaras was the Forester’s dog, lamenting his lack of love life and sniffing rudely ’round the Vixen. Hannah Black was the Woodpecker, hammering on his tree and joining Vixen and Fox in marriage. York and Black doubled as the Forester’s mischievous sons Pepik and Frantík, who get their comeuppance from the Vixen. Claudilia Holloway was the solo Hen, Chocholka Jihye Oh was the strutting Rooster, as proud as Falcone’s fox, and was later the wife of Pásek, the innkeeper, who swept up the feathers of birds poached by Haraschta, after Vixen and her cubs raided his basket. Biran Egan doubled as the Mosquito, buzzing and brashly brandishing a Jedi sword stinger, and the more modest Pásek.
Set and lighting designer Kate Ashton divided the playing area into a tree, the realm of the animals; a table and chairs, that of the humans; and the sunflowers, with sun, moon, and clouds above, in the land in between them, where humans and animals meet. Summer Lee Jack designed delightful costumes for the beautiful ensembles of hens, fox cubs, forest animals, and others. Helping to populate the forest were men in stovepipe hats, portraying birch trees.
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