Thursday, June 23, 2011

An Adventurous Vixen at the NYPhil

"My music remains young through contact with the eternally young rhythm of nature." --Janáček
To be honest, I found the scope and hyperbole of the NYPhil's advertising campaign for their latest collaborative event with Giants are Small rather irritating, but it seems to have paid off: last night, Avery Fisher Hall was very close to full with a healthy mixture of symphony stalwarts, twenty- and thirty-somethings, and European tourists. (Parenthetically, I didn't see many children in the audience. I did read articles about how Vixen is Not For Children Because It Has Sex And Death In It. But I read the Brothers Grimm when a child myself, and so was unimpressed by this argument.) As Andrew Porter once observed, avoiding "a Disneyish cuteness in the staging" can be difficult. I thought last night's effort succeeded reasonably well. Having the orchestra on stage behind the woodland glen (in the field of sunflowers) helped in this regard, as did the choreography of animal/human interactions. The costumes, too, balanced evocation of the animal and human, never to better effect than for the hens' print-dress plumage. Clifton Taylor's lighting design effected seamless transitions, transforming a sandy bank into a bridge, or the vixen's den into the table of the village inn. There was fine singing--some of it excellent--and the orchestra luxuriated in Janáček's musical landscapes. Lushness was emphasized over detail, I thought (though I should note that I'm not very familiar with the score) but the strings were on their best form, and both atmosphere and characterization were handled well.
The above video gives some sense of how the staging was effected. My Second Tier seat gave me a great view of all the action, including that on the projecting path into the hall. The Forester and Harašta both made their first entrances down the sun-and-shade-dappled aisle, climbing onto the stage via this path. While there were a few instances in the first scene when the animals seemed to get stuck in groups, I was impressed, on the whole, by how it was handled. The Blue Dragonfly was beautifully danced by Neel Ram Nagajaran, and the rest of the forest community acquitted itself well. It is a tribute to the orchestra that the interludes felt well-integrated into the dramatic structure of the opera. The Vixen's dream was beautifully danced by Emily Wagner, listed as Terynka in the program, but who also, I thought, neatly invoked the parallels between the Vixen and the gypsy girl, and even, watched by the Forester, could have taken on some of the qualities of an elusive muse.

In my opinion, none of the singers were helped by Norman Tucker's English translation. It fit uneasily with the rhythms which Janáček took such care to match to Czech cadences, and in several places seemed to lose conversational coherence. Since the decision had been made to use projected English titles, I was unsure about the motivation behind the choice not to sing it in the original language. The sententious Parson (Wilbur Pauley) handled his moralizing well, however, and sang with impressive resonance. Keith Jameson, as the Schoolmaster, contributed clean, focused sound; I appreciated that he didn't use vocal "gimmicks" for comedy. As the Fox, Marie Lenormand had far smoother and more focused singing in the third act than the second, where she seemed to struggle. Joshua Bloom was a standout as Harašta; with beautiful phrasing and a rich timbre, he made the poultry dealer a rounded and moving character.

Isabel Bayrakdarian as Bystrouška, and Alan Opie as the Forester, anchored the production with their fine portrayals. Bayrakdarian's physical assumption of the character of the Vixen deserves special praise, I think. Unabashedly, joyously sensual, she scampered and strutted about the stage with aplomb. The degree to which her choreography was "animal-like" varied quite a bit, but Bayrakdarian made it a smoothly integrated performance. On this first occasion of me hearing her live, I was very impressed by the rich expressiveness of her voice, as well as the beauty of her timbre and her fine shaping of phrase. Nowhere were these qualities more evident than in the Vixen's intoxicated, exultant "Am I really then so lovely?" In this case, it seemed rather a superfluous question. Alan Opie, as the Forester, also created a performance of remarkable emotional nuance and depth. His diction, I thought, was the best of the evening, and his baritone wonderfully warm and expressive. Opie communicated the Forester's rough humor, his struggle with disillusionment, and his journey towards being at peace with nature and with himself.

Here's that glorious finale under the baton of Charles Mackerras, with Thomas Allen as the Forester, taken from this DVD:


  1. I'm glad the Phil put this on, but I agree that Janáček in translation is an abomination. It's such a shame that it was in English. It does sound like they've improved the logistical situation from Le grand macabre last year, which was on the cramped side, space-wise, I don't think they could have fit real dancing.

    Vixen is usually described as a Märchen in Europe, not specifically as a Kinderoper but certainly aimed at a family audience, e.g.: (Possibly they're doing it in translation for the kiddies?)

  2. @Zerbinetta Yeah, nowhere in the copious advertising did I see that it would be performed in translation. Sigh. I wouldn't mind so much if I'd seen lots of children being delighted by the sunflowers, frolicking, etc. By the way, do you have a favorite/recommended recording of it?

  3. It's funny how strange it is to hear opera in translation. I tried listening to Salome in French once (Wilde wrote the play in French, after all), and it was just odd. The ENO performs all of its operas in English. While I sympathize with the principle of performing opera in the language of the audience (opera has a long history of being performed this way), ENO performers seem to inevitably sing with a very high English accent that is not appropriate to every opera (the Boheme boys seem particularly asinine when they sound like they've been taking elocution lessons). With supertitles, I'm inclined to say there's just no reason to change to language (apart from creative decision-making). We can hem and haw over the distraction supertitles present, but it's less distracting than checking your libretto every 5 minutes, and translating the opera does not guarantee comprehensibility.

    That said, I am pro good/thoughtful/interesting opera translations (Tom Stoppard did a translation of Love of Three Oranges), but they are hard to come by.

  4. @Caitlin Yeah... this production of Vixen had supertitles integrated on a sky scrim, so I was frustrated by the redundancy of a clunky translation that didn't fit the music well. Grr. Singing opera in translation isn't something that I'm against in all cases by any means; ENO's recent Parsifal translation seemed pretty good, insofar as I could judge on one hearing, and of course there's the whole Don Carlo(s) thing. This choice for Vixen just seemed misjudged to me. (Parenthetically: Stoppard + Prokoviev = !!!)

  5. Yes but didn't Verdi at least have a hand in the whole Don Carlo(s) thing, whereas Janacek just gets posthumously taken out to the shed fer a beatin'.

  6. @stray Yes and yes. And how the music/text relationship is originally conceived does affect translatability, I think. And as Caitlin says, in a production with supertitles, WHY?! Sorry, I'm a bit cross about it; I barely understand a word of Czech but I think it's a beautiful language. And I had to read the titles anyway!

    Tangentially, I think the weirdest instance of opera-in-translation I ever stumbled across was Massenet's Manon in Italian!


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