Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Cunning Little Vixen

Leoš Janáček's 1923 opera about the cycle of life and death in a Bohemian forest, complete with anthropomorphic animal characters, is a tricky opera to pull off, partly because the moods are so quicksilver as is the music. West Edge Opera's production at the abandoned Oakland train station was visually and musically a feast, with beautiful set design by Sarah Phykitt and evocative lighting design by Kevin August Landesman.

Unfortunately, the staging by Pat Diamond and the wan choreography by Liz Tenuto never made the village/forest community story very clear. For surrealism to work, there needs to be some grounding in realism, and a lot of the time it just looked like not much more than cute children in animal costumes jumping up and down. The fault certainly didn't lie with the singing actors who were cast strong from top to bottom. Joseph Raymond Meyers (above left) is a fabulous character tenor but he managed to get lost as the Mosquito (even with a giant hypodermic) and as the lovelorn Schoolmaster. Tenuto (above center) would flap her arms around as The Dragonfly during a few of Janáček's most inspired musical interludes which made me want to shoo her away.

The musical performance was something else, though. I was apprehensive about a chamber orchestra reduction of Janáček's complex score, but the ensemble under Music Director Jonathan Khuner (above) was astonishingly good, lush and transparent and idiomatic. So was every singing actor, from principals Nikola Printz as the Fox, Nickolas Nackley as a Parson/Badger, Carl King as the murderous Harasta, and a whole host of soloists from the Volti Chorus and the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir. Musically, it was one of the most beautiful performances I have ever heard, especially that wordless chorus at the end of Act Two that filled the old marble hall. Musical phrases from the performance are still rolling around happily as earworms in my brain a week later.

Philip Skinner was his beautifully aged bass-baritone self as the Forester and soprano Amy Foote was very good as the Vixen (above, with her Fox, soprano Nikola Printz). Unfortunately, you can't see The Cunning Little Vixen or Powder Her Face anymore because their runs are up today. You can go to a matinee of Handel's Agrippina tomorrow at a 3PM matinee, and I am sure it will be somewhat sensational since it's about Nero and Poppea and evil mothers. Speaking of which, the most fabulously outraged review of Powder Her Face has just been published in the Berkeley Daily Planet. Written by James Roy MacBean, it uses my favorite new all-purpose phrase: "a farrago of bad taste" which appears just after "a blatantly raunchy, pornographic production."

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