City Opera overcomes the challenges of 'Vixen' and sends it triumphantly to TV

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The New York City Opera sometimes has troubles sustaining an image. Now it is a standard opera house with young talent - now it is an innovative company giving operagoers an alternative to the Met.

When it is rummaging around the standard repertoire, it too often invites comparisons with the most recent superior performance of the work. When the City Opera is presenting unusual repertoire, however, it is on far safer ground.

In fact, the productions that have made it famous since the troupe moved to Lincoln Center have been such infrequently encountered works as Janacek's ''The Makropoulos Affair,'' Delius's ''A Village Romeo and Juliet,'' Boito's ''Mefistofele,'' and Floyd's ''Susannah,'' just to name a few.

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''Live From Lincoln Center'' is airing the City Opera production of Janacek's ''The Cunning Little Vixen'' next Wednesday, Nov. 9 (PBS, check local listings for premieres and repeats). When unveiled two seasons back, this production became an instant triumph for the company.

Past City Opera telecasts have been, at best, uneven affairs. I recall a performance of Rossini's ''Cenerentola'' that reflected poorly on the company. The image of the City Opera as a training ground for young American talent lost further luster with a subsequent telecast of Donizetti's ''Lucia di Lammermoor.'' Last season's ''Madama Butterfly'' may have looked young, but it hardly sounded fresh or idiomatic.

But with this ''Vixen,'' the company will offer something both unusual and exceedingly well done. The sets and costumes are re-creations of Maurice Sendak illustrations executed especially for the opera. The direction is by Frank Corsaro, possibly the finest American director in opera today. The cast is City Opera at its best - not necessarily superb singing, but expert acting and presentation.

Janacek's opera is a tough one to stage. The director has to make his audience believe that animals can sing, dance, and talk as well as interact with human beings, without taking on the aura of a Disney cartoon. Corsaro's direction is often amusing, frequently cute, but never cloying. We laugh at a bunch of dumb chickens clucking about, and then pull back in surprise when the Vixen kills every last one.

Sendak's sets and costumes create a stilted environment that blends the two worlds comfortably. Corsaro presents Janacekian nature as charming but unsentimental, human beings as silly but well-meaning. The plot, such as it is, pivots around the aging Bartos the Forester, who is becoming discouraged - even cynical - with life. Nature teaches him, at opera's end, that rebirth and vitality are the key to life in the forest, and he is transformed.

The cast is large, and all perform handsomely. The Vixen of the title is sung by Gianna Rolandi in one of her finest roles to date. She acts with feline grace and an occasional touch of crudity just right for the role. She projects her words with clarity. Richard Cross's Bartos is a large, compassionate portrayal, and as we follow his life in the opera, we become absorbed by both his world of humans and his world of nature.

Numerous other roles are well filled, from Golden-Stripe, the Fox (Nadia Pelle), Catcher, the Dog (Judith Christin), the Schoolmaster (John Lankston), and Harasta (Irwin Densen).

The orchestra has a very crucial role in Janacek operas. The playing, therefore, must be particularly fine.

Fortunately, the City Opera Orchestra is playing better than ever before these days. But unfortunately, conductor Scott Bergeson smooths out the jagged textures of the composer's idiom, blunts the contrasts, and underplays the climaxes.

The show relies on superb but tricky lighting by Neil Peter Jampolis, and a thick scrim remains down for several scenes. It will be interesting to see how those scenes are handled for TV.

Given the quality of performance, there can be no question that the City Opera will reveal a bold new image with this telecast.

Beware that some of the language in the excellent Robert T. Jones/Yvewta Synek Graff translation is a bit blunt for children, and that - the Sendak image notwithstanding - this is not an ideal children's opera, even though it is magical and enchanting.

'Of Mice and Men'

Carlisle Floyd has often been called a one-opera composer, that opera being ''Susannah.''

He is an earnest craftsman, and his librettos are usually exceptionally tight. His condensing of the Steinbeck novel ''Of Mice and Men'' for his 1970 opera is convincing and highly effective.

The opera is being given its City Opera premiere in a production atmospherically designed by Robert O'Hearn. Floyd's setting of his own libretto is another story. The composer is not strong on melodic invention, and his music often sounds like a mood accompaniment rather than a vivid attempt at scoring to support and offset the text.

''Of Mice and Men'' makes for good music theater, but it does not really emerge as a particularly vital opera: One is moved by the plight of the characters, and Floyd's earnest music keeps things moving, but one is never swept away by the power of the music itself.

The singing of the entire cast was unexceptional, but the acting was uniformly excellent. From Lawrence Cooper (George), Robert Moulson (Lennie), James Stith (Candy), Carol Gutknecht (Curley's Wife), and Robert McFarland (Slim), all mastered their roles. In the pit, Christopher Keene kept things taut and lively. Frank Corsaro's direction is at first deceptively simple, but by the end, his restraint and his emphasis on natural performances make the denouement particularly moving.

''Of Mice and Men'' may not be the finest of operas, but it makes for an engaging and touching evening of music theater.

To have had a chance to hear it at the City Opera is welcome, for with this sort of evening, the City comes entirely into its stride.

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