By Charles Donelan

The enchanted forest of Leoš Janácek’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen proved irresistible in this witty and dynamic production from Opera Santa Barbara. The expressive and engaging soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian led the chase as Vixen Sharp-Ears, with the Forester (David Kravitz) trailing behind in an emotional quandary — does he want to kill the vixen, or keep her as a pet? The work’s imaginative allegory weaves together some cheeky lessons about the search for love with a brilliant array of singing animals, including a black-helmeted mosquito played by Ben Brecher and a hilarious chorus of chickens. Instrumental interludes featuring dancers covered the transitions between multiple set pieces, including a fabulous forest wedding for Vixen and Fox Goldenstripe (mezzo Lauren McNeese).

Every detail of this charming and inventive production provided some new gem of characterization, from the touchingly wistful romantic nostalgia of Scott Levin as the Parson to the folk-tinged hunting calls of the poacher Harashta (Evan Bravos). Through Janá?ek’s wry and knowing creator’s perspective, the work’s disparate voices come together to make a single convincing whole. Like his younger countryman Franz Kafka, the composer used the familiar form of the beast fable and the mantle of folk tradition to mask some quite “cunning” observations about 20th-century life. For one example, there’s Vixen’s description of the tortures that beset her as a captive of the Forester, a litany of degradation that shakes the empathetic Goldenstripe. And then there’s the marvelous scene in Act III in which the Vixen teaches her children to avoid the crude trap that’s been set for her. Congratulations to Opera Santa Barbara for realizing this compelling and evocative masterpiece.

Published by the Santa Barbara Independent: