Opera Santa Barbara takes a walk on the wild side this weekend with two performances of Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen. Loosely based on an early-20th-century Czech comic strip that featured a wily female fox named Vixen Sharp-Ears, the opera has become a favorite of contemporary audiences for its stirring combination of a beast fable allegory in the libretto and lush romanticism in the score. Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian stars as Vixen Sharp-Ears and is joined by an outstanding cast that includes mezzo Lauren McNeese as her mate Fox Goldenstripe, David Kravitz as the Forester who pursues her, and UCSB’s Benjamin Brecher in the dual roles of the Schoolmaster and Mosquito.
Composed late in Janáček’s career, The Vixen has several ambitious segments that expand the range of operatic performance to include not only ballet but also a wide variety of animal behaviors as portrayed by the principals and by a children’s chorus acting as the creatures of the forest.
For Opera Santa Barbara Artistic Director Kostis Protopapas, the decision to program this particular work was an easy one, as he told me that “it has always been a favorite” of his and Vixen Sharp-Ears is “a signature role for Isabel [Bayrakdarian].” The beautiful duets between the Vixen and her lover Goldenstripe pair the soprano and mezzo-soprano voices in a way that Protopapas sees as “almost an homage to the presentation of the rose in Strauss’s Rosenkavalier.” The story is “playful,” according to the maestro, but also serious because it is “an allegory of the cycle of life.” “The Vixen symbolizes freedom and independence,” Protopapas said. “She escapes from the Forester and becomes a rabble-rouser among the other creatures, but she remains a misfit, unable to belong completely to either the human or the animal world.”
“It’s a funny thing,” said Protopapas. “The Forester spends the whole opera chasing the Vixen, but they are only onstage together for something like two minutes.” As a way of further speculating on this, he added that “the two main characters never meet in Acts Two and Three, but it is the Forester’s search for the Vixen that moves the whole story ahead. It’s kind of like what happens in Moby-Dick, where everything becomes subordinated to Ahab’s search for the white whale. The Vixen signifies the Forester’s search for meaning.” Although in true operatic fashion, it’s not a happy ending, there is a note of redemption in the way that life goes on and new generations come to supplant the elders who have been lost.
Expect dancing dragonflies, a talking frog, and an adorable litter of singing fox cubs from The Cunning Little Vixen, but don’t come looking for any Disney-style softening of nature’s wild kingdom. This forest can be red in tooth and claw as well as cuddly, and the Vixen gets up to some genuine mischief. In the end, however, it is Janáček’s trust in nature and feeling for his beloved Czech countryside that provides this fable with its moral, which is that for humans and animals alike, life dances on.
411 The Cunning Little Vixen plays Friday, March 3, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, March 5, 2:30 p.m., at the Granada Theatre, 1214 State Street. For tickets and information, visit operasb.org or call the Granada box office at (805) 899-2222.