By Josef Woodard
There is a charming “fourth wall” brand of an audience wink toward the end of Janacek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen” that lets us know that the creators — composer, singers and interpreters through ages alike — know that we know about this charming work’s undercurrent of whimsy and absurdity.
In that joy buzzer bit, our anti-hero, The Forester (David Kravitz, an assured presence, vocally and otherwise) returns to survey the state of things in the woods. He smugly expresses his satisfaction with the dramatic closure of it all, “so the people won’t sing about us in operas anymore.”
Oh, they will, and they do. Thankfully.
Disarming though this moment may have been when Opera Santa Barbara presented the comic opera last weekend at the Granada Theatre, it’s not as if we’re not prepared for the unexpected.
Fancifully costumed dancers (choreographer-dancer Wendy Castellanos-Wolf and Raul Machorro) flutter about the stage, at irregular intervals. Wily fox protagonists (Isabel Bayrakdarian in sharp, big-toned and witty form as Vixen Sharp-Ears, and accomplished mezzo-soprano Lauren McNeese as Fox Golden-Stripe) intermingle with human hunters and connivers, and a clucking hen chorus, a mosquito, badger, scamper amidst jumbo sunflowers and a landscape blending naturalism and the fantastical imaginations of cartoon ethics (early Disney and Max Fleisher come to mind, along with a certain, innately gothic Eastern European sensibility).
Throughout, and also with much credit due the stage direction of Crystal Manich, set and lighting designer Francois-Pierre Couture and costume designers Constance Hoffman and Stacie Logue, we were fed indicators from the outset that we’re on enchanted and fairly surreal turf here — even by the naturally irrational threshold of dramatic license of the opera medium.
By the end of the three-act, intermission-less performance, it all added up to one of the most offbeat and child-friendly (including the absurdity-accepting child within all of us), and wholly and shamelessly enjoyable, productions of the Opera Santa Barbara’s history.
Leos Janacek, generally considered the greatest of 20th century Czech composers, is best known, operatically, for much darker and more angst-y fare, as in his gripping “Jenufa” and “Katya Kabanova.”
With the allegorical fairytale “The Cunning Little Vixen,” premiered in 1924 and inspired by a comic strip by Rudolf Tesnohlidek, the animal and plant world buzzes and has its own vivid life force, sometimes interacting with the human world which would like to tame, kill or seduce/possess it.
Vixen lures her would-be predators and prey, and invites us to read her character in biomorphic terms, as a woman liberated from the still stifling gender conditions of the early 20th century. An admirer pays an odd, period-centric compliment: “You are an ideal modern woman. Do you smoke?”
The creature discomforts and species twist-ups are also conveyed through the casting of singers in both animal and human roles. The fine and ever-flexible tenor Benjamin Brecher (who teaches at UCSB, as does newcomer Ms. Bayrakdarian), plays both the mosquito and the squeamish schoolmaster. Nandani Sinha is both the Forester’s Wife and the bug-eyed wiseguy-ish Owl. And Molly Clementz is at once Lapak, the dog, and a woodpecker. The identity confusion and collision contributes to the production’s aura of loopy delight.
In its story turns, emotional implications and also its very musical language, this Janacek beauty manages to be funny, sweet and salty, without venturing into the realm of either sentimentality or the clenching dissonances of sound and temperament germane to his more “serious” operatic work.
Yet, giddy turns and metaphors notwithstanding, there are serious pleasures to be savored in this score. There is beauty to behold in the sumptuous, textured orchestra part (conducted by the company’s current artistic director, Kostis Protopapas) and lovely arias and opportunities for singers to shine, in purely musical ways — which they generally did, in this production, where the parts configured nicely into a cohesive whole. There were many qualities and foxy wiles to woo us into comic operatic bliss at the Granada. Cunning was only the beginning.
Published by the Santa Barbara News-Press: www.newspress.com.