A gem at the New York City Opera

It is always a joy to discover un unexpected operatic gem, particularly when that gem is perfectly set. Janacek's "The Cunning Little Vixen" has eluded directors and opera companies since its inception. The odd mixture of singing animals and yattering humans has put people off to the extent that the New York City Opera production of the work was only the second professional production the work has received in this country.

But it was a triumph for the City Opera. director Frank Corsaro, who has garnered his share of now-classic productions with this company, has been handsomely abetted by Maurice Sendak's imposing drawings, rendered for the stage by set designer Neil Peter Jampolis, and costume Designer Steven Feldman. Sendak-Jampolis-Feldman have created a fantasy world where it is perfectly natural for animals to talk, yet where we can switch to the human world without being fazed by it.

It is a dual world of bluish moonlight and magic (thanks to Jampolis's stunning lighting design), of animals that are cute but not Disneyish, where death is "natural" and expected, and rebirth is the key word. In this plot the Forester needs to be taught that rebirth is the call of nature, not death: The qualities he sees in the vixen he has caught and raised he sees in her offspring after she has been accidentally killed.

Janacek wraps this in some of his most hauntingly lyrical music. The orchestral interludes are so beguiling they have even become orchestral suites for concert halls. There are several opportunities for principal voices to shine, be it the duet between the Vixen and Golden-Stripe the Fox, or the Forester's final aria of revelation.

It is exactly the sort of opera the City should be doing, and happily every choice here has been felicitous. Michael Tilson Thomas, in his house debut, made the orchestra play better than anyone had any right to expect, and he ferretted out all the beauty, mood, and lushness of the score. Opera clearly brings out something special in him (as he proved in the Santa Fe in Berg's "Lulu") and here's hoping he will be used again and again.

The opera asks for a large cast, with most of the animals allotted, as Janacek indicated, to female voices. Thus the Vixen was sung by Gianna Rolandi, Golden-Stripe by Nadia Pelle, the dog by Jane Shaulis, etc. The title role requires more beguiling sound than the efficient but rather too-feline Miss Rolandi possesses.

But this is quibbling, in actuality, for the evening was a delight from beginning to end, particularly in the chatty, just-right English translation by Robert T. Jones and K?ueta Synok Graffa. It will be back in the fall, and that is cause for celeb rating, and planning,m if you are to be in the New York area.

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