Leoš Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen (composed 1921-3) follows the exploits of Sharp-Ears, a wily fox, in a series of bullet-point vignettes, from her capture as a pup by a bumbling but tender-hearted human, to her courtship with a handsome male fox in the forest, and her death at the hands of a poacher. Replete with a wily, lovable protagonist, a full complement of colorful woodland creatures, and a gorgeous folk music-inspired score, one can easily imagine it serving as a template for a young Walt Disney. Yet for all its lightheartedness, it also encapsulates Janáček’s philosophy on the cyclical nature of life and death, and indeed the final scene was performed during the composer’s funeral as per his wishes.
The hyper-condensed nature of the story, in combination with a libretto consisting mostly of dialogue punctuated by frequent brief instrumental interludes necessitates a certain pithy eloquence of stage direction to convey the main idea, action, or mood of each brief scene. Though director Patrick Diamond was largely up to the task, there were a few moments of on-stage confusion. Sometimes, the cast seemed to have to little to do, especially in scenes with lots of instrumental music, whereas in some of the busier scenes they looked overwhelmed, and the central gist got lost in the details.
In general, the production was most successful when it was simple and colorful. The set, prominently featuring constructions of trees with evocative light projections, was a total triumph in this regard, as was the charming costuming. Staging-wise, the clearest scenes were those that focused on a single idea and allowed the cast to shine. In particular, I recall the natural, convincing relationship between Sharp-Ears and her lover, the drunken soliloquies of humans leaving a bar, and the wild, buzzing energy of the vixen’s many children in the final scene.
For my taste, the vocal hero of the evening was Philip Skinner, who gave a dignified performance as the vixen’s human captor, and whose seasoned baritone voice reached meltingly beautiful heights. Also noteworthy was up-and-coming mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz, who sang the role of the vixen’s lover with a consistently captivating tone and understated, effective characterization. Soprano Amy Foote gave a lively, nimble portrayal of the titular character but there were frequent issues of audibility and balance between her light voice and the orchestra, (which, by the way, was immaculate under the baton of West Edge’s Jonathan Kuhner).
The other great stars of the show were the numerous young actor-singers who played juvenile woodland creatures and humans. Normally I do not enjoy seeing child performers in professional roles, (go ahead, call me a curmudgeon,) because they either lower the tone of otherwise fine productions, or, when they do give professional-level performances I have the discomfiting suspicion that they might have been forced to practice for many lonely hours by over-zealous parents. In this case, however, Janáček’s work is calibrated to include children, it was precisely their vivacious energy and sense of pure fun that carried the opera’s powerful final scene.
The Disney-like quality of the piece, with its cartoonish characters, tuneful score, and themes of love and rebirth, (which some might consider simplistic or cliché,) gave me cause to consider sentimentality. Artists have long struggled with its place in their work, and indeed, for various reasons, most of the great composers Twentieth Century adopted a decidedly anti-sentimental attitude. I confess that, I, too, often check myself for being sentimental or nostalgic. We are taught to view these emotions as self-indulgent, irrational, and unproductive. (For instance, saying “I have a sentimental attachment to X,” always has the ring of an apology.) And yet, I was moved by this sentimental story. There is something restful about the idea that at artist near the end of his long life might create an ode to existence not by deconstructing and agonizing over it, but instead by giving a simple snapshot with deep affection. It made me smile, and once I started watching and listening carefully, it also made me think.
The remaining performances take place August 7th and 13th at Oakland’s abandoned train station. Tickets may be purchased through www.westedgeopera.org