On Stage: ‘The Cunning Little Vixen’

The New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert, cond.; June 25

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One of the most talked about events among New Yorkers last season was Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, a surprise hit for Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic. Between June 22-25, came Gilbert’s latest brainchild: a semi-staged production of Janá?ek’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen, or “Vix in the City,” as it was called by Eric Latzky, the orchestra’s vice president for communications.

For those four days, the stage of Avery Fisher Hall was transformed to create an idyllic backdrop lush with nature, the entire orchestra engulfed by giant daffodils. “It was very special to be part of the production,” section violinist Yulia Ziskel says, “to see how it works, to be in the middle of it, and not just be playing in an orchestra pit.

“We never usually get to see it this way.”

She was so close to the action, in fact, that her bow arm almost brushed the wings of the butterfly costumed child actors who danced across the stage

A diagonal runway jutted out from the stage into the audience allowing the singers access to the aisles, which they used for entries and exits, and which further blurred the lines between concert hall and opera house.

In the role of the Vixen, the young Armenian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, making her New York Philharmonic debut, was outstanding. All the singers performed to an extremely high standard and this in spite of the twin drawbacks of singing over an onstage orchestra and singing in English rather than in the original Czech, the speech rhythms of which are so crucial to Janá?ek’s conception of melodies.

Vixen is part folk opera, part love story, part morality tale—a heterogeneous mixture of elements, varying wildly in tone from the earthy to the high-minded—and it is Janá?ek’s score that binds it all together. In the rollicking ostinatos and full textures, the orchestra’s sound was better than I’ve heard in a long time. The violin solos were played with a gorgeous, blended sound by concertmaster Glenn Dicterow and Carol Webb.

Still, the abrupt tempo changes and co-ordination with the singers remain a challenge for even the top orchestras. “While it is a wonderful opportunity to hear a great orchestra play this music, it is a tricky score and could have used a few more rehearsals,” says professor Michael Beckerman of New York University, a specialist in Czech music.

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