There is a strand of genuine affection running through the local print reviews of Long Beach Opera's production of Leoš Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen, and at yesterday's second, sadly final, performance, it was easy to see why. This was just the sort of thing they do well in Long Beach: a work at least slightly off the beaten track, presented so as to make us wonder why we haven't seen it before or don't see it more often, and all on a budget that wouldn't keep the lights on for a week in the prop shop of a larger, more mainstream company. Even when they put on something really difficult -- Vixen doesn't count on that score -- Long Beach Opera is California's, and one of the nation's, most endearing cultural institutions.
I know what you're thinking: he spent a few hours with some singing fuzzy animals and now he's gone fuzzy himself. Not so. Vixen Sharp Ears and her woodland compatriots are certainly lovable, but Janáček was never one for easy sentimentality and his natural world is red in tooth and claw. Chickens are slaughtered without compunction. A cute li'l bunny is torn in two for a lovers' picnic (the lovers being foxes, naturally). The presence of humans doesn't help: Sharp Ears in the end is shot by a poacher, ending as a muff for his fiancee.
The humans themselves grow old and tired and disappointed and regretful. The famously late-blooming composer, who achieved success in his sixties and after, leaves us with the aging Forester steeped in wistful memory of the vixen he adopted, lost, once tried to kill himself, and now misses, rounded off with the partial comfort that the life of the forest and the world somehow cycles on. Here, the Forester is surely a surrogate for Janáček and Janáček a surrogate for all.
While the opera ends in a bittersweet vein, it is plenty lively in getting there, and the Long Beach Opera production was happy to play up the vigor and earthy humor of the tale. The company cannot afford the superpremium international casting that marks, say, Los Angeles Opera's recent Magic Flute. It compensates by skewing toward younger, highly promising singing actors, with often gratifying results.
(A digression: LBO's use of younger singers, in combination with its commitment to placing drama on an equal footing with the music in music drama, also produces another benefit: Long Beach rarely succumbs to "Fat Lady Syndrome," the condition of casting singers for their undeniably splendid voices and talents despite the singer's age and/or physique being at odds with those of the character. FLS affects the casting of men as well as women: see, e.g., Placido Domingo's late career ventures in to Wagner, yielding a Parsifal who sounds wonderful but is clearly old enough to be the character's great grandfather. End of digression.)
Vixen Sharp Ears has a short, sweet life, and Ani Maldjian took her from infancy to independent young vixenhood to too-brief marital and maternal bliss with nuance and a deft comic touch. Peabody Southwell shone in the trouser role (more of a brown overall role in this case) of the Fox who wins Sharp Ears' affections; I am pleased to see that Ms. Southwell will be returning in both of LBO's remaining productions this season. In the animal ensemble of insects, birds, and mammals, I will single out the grasshopper and cricket of Melissa Simpson and Laura Parker, if only because it was a pleasure to banter with them when creatures began to invade the auditorium prior to the overture. Among the humans Michael Chioldi, with rather more experience behind him than most of the cast, stood out singing splendidly as the Forester, and bringing all of the necessary acceptance and pathos to his closing revery.
Small company that it is, LBO only offers two performances of each of its productions. Thanks to the vagaries of my own schedule, I will be seeing the final performance of each, so that my recommendation after the fact can do you no practical good. Accept, then, my recommendation before the fact. Vixen was essentially a sellout, and it is to be hoped the remaining performances this season -- Vivaldi's rediscovered Motezuma and, somewhere deep within the hull of the Queen Mary, an Ullman/Orff double bill -- will achieve the same success. Do not delay if you want to be in that number when the next set of favorable notices comes marching in.
A pair of those affectionate print reviews I mentioned:
Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times: "[L]eave it to this modest but resourceful and quick-witted company to somehow come back from what appeared near death just as its larger neighbor to south, Opera Pacific, bites the dust and its giant neighbor to the north, Los Angeles Opera, battens down the financial hatches for hard times."
Timothy Mangan in the OC Register: "[T]his is the company's hallmark: Looking into operas that others neglect, and mounting them in innovative productions."
Photo (top): "Urban Vixen" by Flickr user Steve Punter, used under Creative Commons license.
Photo (not quite top): Ani Maldjian in/as The Cunning Little Vixen. Credit: Ken Hively.
Photo (not quite bottom): The Vixen company of creatures. Long Beach Opera photo by Keith Ian Polakoff.
Photo (bottom): Peabody Southwell as the Fox, with Ani Maldjian. Long Beach Opera photo by Keith Ian Polakoff.