With giant sunflowers popping up in back, a forest bed of moss in front, and animals and insects darting about in eye-popping costumes, the New York Philharmonic turned its stage into the set for what's becoming an annual excursion into opera.
The woodland creatures — along with several human characters — made up the cast of Leos Janacek's fable, "The Cunning Little Vixen," which received the first of four performances at Avery Fisher Hall on Wednesday night.
Alan Gilbert conducted the orchestra to ravishing effect in this quicksilver score, which is spiky and astringent one minute and meltingly lyrical the next, filled with the composer's trademark densely compressed melodies.
Gilbert's chief collaborator was Doug Fitch, who directed the staging (which includes a walkway extending into the orchestra seating) and designed the costumes for the frogs, mosquitoes, foxes, hens and other creatures that populate the opera. It was Fitch's creative hand that also guided last year's wildly successful presentation of Ligeti's end-of-the-world extravaganza "Le Grand Macabre."
Janacek had no such apocalyptic vision in mind when he wrote "Vixen."
First performed in 1924, the work was inspired by a popular comic strip of the day that intertwines the adventures of a wily female fox and a philosophical forester.
In 10 brief scenes lasting a total of about 90 minutes, we watch as the young vixen is captured by the forester, who takes her home as a pet. She escapes back to the woods, finds love, gives birth to a dauntingly large family, and finally is shot, almost accidentally, by a poacher. The forester, meanwhile, grows old and near the end he encounters one of the vixen's offspring — affirming a sense of renewal through the cycle of life.
What makes the work so entrancing is Janacek's total lack of sentimentality or preciousness in its telling. These animals are not cuddly Disney-like creations, but recongizable character types filled with the same aspirations and annoying habits as people.
In the opening scenes, the proliferation of creatures (mostly youngsters from the Metropolitan Opera Children's Chorus) running around with gossamer wings, bushy tails and pointy ears actually threatens to get in the way of the music. So much eye-candy seems an unnecessary distraction when Janacek's score itself so wonderfully evokes the natural world.
But Fitch's direction soon settles down, and the later scenes are compellingly simple. When the poacher's shots cut short the vixen's life, the suddenness of the act registers with shock. And it's hard not to be moved by the final image of the forester, seated alone in the woods with the grandchild of a frog that had awakened him from a nap in the opening scene.
The strong cast featured soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian as a delightfully feisty Vixen. She sang the difficult part well, except for some strident top notes. Mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand provided rich-hued lyricism as Vixen's ardent suitor, the Fox.
Several of the men were outstanding, starting with baritone Alan Opie, a pillar of grizzled dignity as the Forester. Tenor Keith Jameson was outstanding in the double roles of the Mosquito and the Schoolmaster, and Joshua Bloom displayed a generous and beautifully modulated baritone as Harasta the poacher.
The children sang and acted with infectious enthusiasm, and the New York Choral Artists contributed greatly to the evening. Dancer Emily Wagner added a touch of elegance during her solo turn in a dream sequence as the young woman Vixen imagines herself to be.