The strongest part of Doug Fitch’s much-heralded production of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre with the New York Philharmonic last year was its third scene: the director abandoned frantically assembled, rockily integrated projections—the “live” animations—and switched to something more theatrically traditional: actors in costumes, using the whole hall as a stage. Though Fitch’s group Giants Are Small are known for combining “low-tech, handmade puppetry with high-tech video capabilities,” for his latest collaboration with the Phil, Leoš Janácek’s The Cunning Little Vixen, he has wisely embraced that kind of full-theatrical approach, more in line with the orchestra’s annual semi-staged Broadway revivals than last year’s Ligeti, getting closer to conductor and music director Alan Gilbert’s vision for a full sensory concert hall experience. Fitch & Co. have crafted a delightfully silly, witty and inventive staging of a fun and enchanting work.
Vixen, written from 1921-1923, was based on a popular comic (roughly translated as “The Adventures of Vixen Sharp-Ears”) in a Brno newspaper, introduced to the composer by his housekeeper. The opera retains an episodic, strip-like structure, a series of comic (and occasionally poignant) scenes that feel not unlike an ABC Charlie Brown special, though a bit more stretched out: the title character (charmingly played by Isabel Bayrakdarian in her Philharmonic debut) is captured by a forester and raised at his home, where she causes mayhem and mischief before escaping back into the woods, where she marries, raises a family, and gets killed by a hunter. Her trials suggest multiple, unsustained allegories: in captivity, she is a socialist agitator, trying to rally the chickens; she is a radical feminist, caged like a kept-woman (“beat and kill, just because I’m a vixen” she laments later); she is a wicked, prankish teenager, lashing out at her oafish guardians.
But allegory takes a back seat in Fitch’s production, which is most impressive as a feat of design: the stage was bathed in green light (and the audience in yellow), with 15-foot sunflowers in back, all contributing to a sylvan effect. Singers, many of them children, wore elaborate, colorful costumes representing insects, birds and small forest critters and bounded, hopped and flitted about the stage in dopey fun. (Its Charlie Brown-like dancing, its fox tormenting a gamekeeper and its themes of a animal denied its nature all reminded me of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox.) Janácek’s music is mimetic, with clucking melodies for the chickens and vocal lines for a dog that sound like the plaintive howls of a hound dog. “Sir, you know so well what animals say,” the composer’s housekeeper told him. “You’re always writing down those bird calls—wouldn’t it make a marvelous opera!” Breaking into dramatic swells and romantic sweeps like Tchaikovsky—or even Janácek’s Czech countryman Dvorak—the music richly evokes life in the forest: wistful uncertainty with hints of magic, melancholy, wonder and danger. Winds tweet, strings trill and brasses wheeze to imitate the sounds of the creatures; in one passage, high string melodies played off oom-pah-pah brass like insects warbling with the frogs. Janácek trades in playful farmland mimicry; Fitch’s triumph was to achieve in staging what the composer does in song.
The Cunning Little Vixen will be performed through Saturday. More info here.