New York Philharmonic Subscription Season Finale: Janacek’s “Cunning Little Vixen”

To judge by his first two seasons as music director, and the announced plans for next season, Alan Gilbert likes to end the season with a real bang, bringing a big production of a work not previously played by the New York Philharmonic that includes unusually large forces (singers, chorus), sets, costumes, staging, etc.  Last year, it was Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre.  This year, last week, it was Janacek's opera known in English as "The Cunning Little Vixen."   Next year, the season will end with what should be a spectacular NYP premiere of Stockhausen's Gruppen for three orchestras, spatially distributed around the hall.

I attended the last performance of the Janacek, on Saturday night, June 25.  I marvel at the NYP's willingness and ability to turn over their final subscription week to such a logistically complicated and undoubtedly expensive effort.  In addition to the normal costs of presenting an orchestral concert, this staged opera performance required a chorus, a large cast, stage direction and choreography, costumes, sets, surtitle projections, and sacrificed some seating revenue due to the substantial stage extension and platform out into the hall.  While this was the first performance of this piece by the orchestra, The Cunning Little Vixen was presented by New York City Opera in a delightful production about 20 years ago, so perhaps the need for it was not nearly so pressing as for last year's Ligeti, which was a first New York City presentation.  Nonetheless, that this delightful opera was being brought to us after a generation's absence from local live performance made it a genuine novelty for most of those attending the concerts, and, as Gilbert observed in the program book, it is a "great opera" and the chance to hear it rendered by an orchestra of this quality is a rare privilege.

As was done last year, the creative responsibility for the visual end of the production was turned over to the inventive Doug Fitch and his creative team, and they did a splendid job, with very colorful costumes constructed, in part, from "found objects" injecting an improvisatory and humorous element.  The cast entered fully into the spirit of the staging.  Isabel Bayrakdarian as the Vixen made an extaordinarily successful NY Philharmonic debut, singing up a storm while prancing around the stage (including an extension built out into the orchestra section) in an athletic display that one suspects would be far beyond what most operatic sopranos could emulate.  Marie Lenormand was equally compelling as the Fox, Vixen's love interest. 

For the "people" cast, we had a distinguished line-up of Alan Opie as the Forester, Melissa Parks as the Forester's Wife, Keith Jameson as the Schoolmaster, Wilber Pauley as the badger, John Kawa as the innkeeper, and the "people" role that stole the show as far as I was concerned, Joshua Bloom as the poultry-dealer poacher who put an end to the Vixen.  Bloom had also appeared in last year's Ligeti production, and it was a pleasure to hear him again.

Much of the diverting stage action called upon a corps of talented youngsters who scampered about in their various animal costumes, apparently having a grand old time, sometimes providing adorable singing as well.

The orchestra was somewhat reduced in the string section, squeezed into the back of the stage to leave plenty of room for the action, but one did not feel any lack of depth in the sound, and the entire performance seemed inspired.  This opera includes lengthy orchestral sections without singing, essentially scenic music to accompany choreography as the animals in the forest go about their lives, so it is important to have a first-rate orchestra on hand when it is performed.  That was certainly the case for this production.

These season-ending blockbusters reinforce the important contribution that the NYP has been making to the cultural life of New York City in the Alan Gilbert era.  I hope and trust that funding can be found for continuing innovation in programing, and look forward eagerly to hearing what they do with Stockhausen at the end of next season. 

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