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Cunning Little Vixen – opera by Leoš Jánaček



Amy Foote as Vixen. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Foxy Lady

West Edge Opera opened its 2016 Summer Festival with Leoš Jánaček’s charming and endearing “Cunning Little Vixen” at the cavernous, abandoned Oakland Train Station. The stately but dilapidated Beaux-Arts structure was so popular with audiences at last year’s production of Lulu, that the company contracted to produce all three operas in the festival at this distinctive venue. If this year’s first performance is any indication, the company has a hit on its hands.


Amy Foote as Vixen. Photo by Cory Weaver.

“Cunning Little Vixen” is distinguished by its anthropomorphization of animals. Its central theme is the bittersweet life cycle of Sharp Ears, a female fox who is captured by Forester, a human. She later escapes and meets Fox, the love of her life, and is ultimately killed by the poacher, Harasta, but not before yielding progeny to sustain life for the species. The libretto is full of vignettes that are touching, scary, humorous, and lewd, but that condition leads to a weakness, in that the storyline is jumpy and congested because it attempts to cover too much ground in the animal world, the human world, and their intersection.

The orchestral music is often lush, lilting, and highly descriptive, distinguished by unusual rhythms that the composer adapted to fit the Czech language. To the seasoned ear, there are strains of Moravian folk music. The score is romantic and accessible, yet lofty in its ambition. Jánaček adopts the modern idiom of continuous melody without set pieces, but the score is unusual in a couple of other respects. Frequent musical interludes occur with only sporatic lyrics, but thoughtful melody and orchestration combined with stage action continue to drive the plot forward. Also, scenes with animal characters, which dominate the action, have a very high tessitura, as all animal roles, including male figures, are sung by female voices. By contrast, the human scenes are male dominated with a low tessitura.

The casting of the opera is superb. Amy Foote is magnetic as Sharp Ears, the Vixen. She inhabits the role totally with playfulness, affection, insolence, and daring, and sings with dramatic skill suited to the part. She captures our sympathies as she fights for her freedom and existence. Philip Skinner is imposing as Forester – a powerful voice, but even more so, a powerful presence. His role is remarkably acted, and he seems to fill the stage with his dominating gestures. In a smaller role, Nikola Printz as Fox displays a consistently warm, beautiful mezzo voice – a real pleasure to hear.

Jonathan Khuner’s orchestra is used to good effect. It cries and quivers and bounces along. Clearly, a larger orchestra would produce a bigger sound, but its 17 pieces perform commendably.


Photo by Cory Weaver

West Edge’s production exudes colorful vitality from henhouse antics to a crowded scene with the children and adult choruses. The staging is simple, yet fulfilling. Downstage is framed by two huge two-dimensional tree montages – leafless and with large trunk and limbs – which overlap at the center to constitute a proscenium arch. The motif is repeated on the back wall. The richness of the scenery derives from the use of projections which, among others, cast green to depict nature and as a brick wall to depict a drinking house. But much of the color comes from the diverse and amusing costumery and hair pieces which create a busy, kaleidoscopic effect. In all, director Pat Diamond has assembled attractive production values that ably complement the musical performance.

Jánaček’s ascent into the repertoire is welcomed. His work (others include “Jenufa,” “The Makropulos Affair,” and “Katya Kabanova”) benefited as much as any from recent political and technological trends. The collapse of the Soviet Union opened up new worlds for Slavic opera, while supertitles in opera houses and improved home audio make that same music more accessible.

Cunning Little Vixen by Leoš Jánaček is produced by West Edge Opera and plays at Oakland’s abandoned train station at 1601 Wood Street near16th Street in West Oakland through August 13.


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