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November 21, 2008

Peabody stages Janacek's opera of animals, humans

Peabody Opera TheatreBefore fantasy films made it commonplace to find human and animal characters mingling freely, there was a curious, endearing opera from 1924 by Janacek. Best known in English as The Cunning Little Vixen, the work is getting a rare local staging by Peabody Opera Theatre under a more literal translation of the original Czech title: The Adventures of Sharp-Ears the Vixen. (Doesn't have quite the same ring to me.)

The plot revolves around the aging Forester, who catches a charming vixen, Sharp-Ears, and tries to domesticate the animal. That doesn't go too well. The vixen makes quick work of some chickens, escapes back into the forest, kicks a badger out of his home, falls in love with a fox, and gets shot by a poultry dealer. In the end, the Forester finds a kind of moral in everything, a reassuring realization that there is a renewing cycle to nature (and humankind), that what we lose comes back somehow. He even sees (or imagines) another vixen, just as beguiling as the one before. Janacek does not try to make too much out of any of this, doesn't hit us over the head with symbols and philosophy. The opera merely invites us into a realm that is at once surprising and familiar, and lets us draw our own conclusions.

The opening performance last night in Peabody's Friedberg Hall held various rewards and disappointments. On the plus side, ...

the extraordinary inventiveness of the score emerged -- the vividly colored orchestration, the way that the slightest shift in a melody or chord or rhythm enables Janacek's to create a different mood and emotion. (No composer sounds like Janacek, and his musical language is compelling reason enough to explore his operas.) Hajime Teri Murai conducted with a strong appreciation for all of that evocative power, lavishing particular care on orchestral passages (the darkly beautiful start of Act 3 was especially effective), and he drew from the students in the pit a lot of vibrant, if sometimes untidy, playing.

The large cast got into the spirit of things, but didn't seem entirely cohesive and comfortable. (Last night's cast sings again Saturday night; a second set takes over tonight and Sunday afternoon.) Most of the voices sounded a little small, particularly when the orchestra asserted itself, and just about everbody onstage could have paid more attention to articulation -- they might as well have been singing in Czech, for all the clarity of their English. (There are surtitles.)

In the title role, Jessica Thompson proved to be a dynamic actress, very into the whole foxy thing. I would have welcomed more tonal warmth and more distinctive personality in her phrasing. As the Forester, Nathan Wyatt lost ground in the upper register, but his singing was sensitive and natural. Lindsay Thompson, as the Fox, delivered the most impressive vocalism, bright and pure of tone, with dynamic phrasing. She and Jessica Thompson delivered the Vixen/Fox love scene, one of the score's most enchanting moments, with considerable flair. Benjamin Moore, as the vixen-slaying Harasta, projected firmly and put an expressive spin on his words.  Misha Kachman's set uses as a starting point a felled tree truck and delivers visual charm from there. Kristina Lucka's costumes feature the expected, Old Country designs for the humans, a punk and puckish approach for most of the animal characters. Director Roger Brunyate moves things along neatly enough, if with limited humor and depth.

PHOTO: Jessica Thompson as the Vixen (Photo by Will Kirk for Peabody Conservatory)

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:45 PM | | Comments (5)


I attended opening evening enjoying the lead Jessica Thompson as the Vixen and Lindsay Thompson [no relationship] as Golden-Mane the Fox to have great chemistry in their scenes. Unfortunately the orchestra oftentimes drowned out the perfromers and should be more aware to their relationship to the production.

Overall the acting was better than expected and the production thoroughly enjoyable.

Please check back at my review if you get a chance; my mention of Lindsay is in there now. Don't ask me how, but it didn't make it the first go-round. And thanks for your comments.--TIM

I disagree with the overall feeling of this review, personally. I found the directing to be full of humor and depth, just not over-done. I felt it to be subtle and well thought out; leaving it to the audience members to derive the meaning of the actions, just as Janacek did not hit the audience members over the head with the rather subversive underlying content.

Additionally, I would have to agree with 'Baltimore Opera Lover' about Jessica and Lindsay Thompson. I thought that they stole the show in their 2nd act Love scene. The acting was far better than in many operas, (including some Met performances) and while perhaps not on par vocally with said opera house, I found them to both have depth of personality in their phrasings, and their voices blended superbly well together.

Thanks for your comments. Somehow, my observations about Lindsay Thompson didn't make it into the original posting of the review, so please that another look when you can.--TIM

Hello. I attended the first performance and thought it as beautiful. What really stood out to me was the dancing. I thought everything else was fun to watch. I think the dancers were able to adapt well with the singers and make the opera look more complete. I also think that Jessica Thompson did an exceptional performance and it left me breathless. The humor in the opera was well written and I know the audience was laughing along when they were supposed to. JOB WELL DONE PEABODY. (especially dancers)

This morning - Monday 11/23 - I see no reference to Lindsay Thompson in your Baltimore Sun review, though you mention it has been updated to include your comments about her performance. I found your review by searching, first on 'vixen' then on 'Peabody opera'. Thanks.

The review on the blog is the full one. I just looked and it's all there (the reference to that singer is on the second page):

Thank you for your review and your many appreciative comments. I am particularly grateful that the blog format allows for other voices to join the discussion. This is a complex piece that came to mean a great deal to those of us who worked on it. I know there have been many more radical productions, some cuter, some darker, but as Baltimore Opera Lover suggested, our aim was to achieve a balance between the two so that the music might make its effect unfiltered. I am glad that you think it did.
-- Roger Brunyate

Thanks for your post. I'm sorry I wasn't free to catch a second performance.-- TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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