Denton — The local opera scene is small, but amazing things are going on in Denton. The addition of renowned director Jonathan Eaton to the faculty of the University of North Texas College of Music has bumped the level of the productions up to a remarkable level. Case in point is the new production of Leoš Janáček’s fantasy opera The Cunning Little Vixen, written in 1924.
The story, based on a popular Czech cartoon series, concerns life cycles of both humans and animals. The best Western equivalent is the Peanuts comic strip in which Charlie Brown and his ragtag group of companions—humans and animals—represent archetypes of humans and their fraught interactions. In Vixen there are also human and animal characters that interact together, as well as within each of the two kingdoms. As with Peanuts and life itself, it is both a comedy and a tragedy as well as a story of triumph and defeat. The libretto was written by the composer, so it is a little confusing, but you soon catch on.
This production is a tour-de-force for the actors but equally so for the production staff.
Eaton has turned the Lyric Theater in the Murchison Performing Arts Center into a theater-in-the-round with seating around the perimeter of the main floor and more seating on the balconies that surround the theater. As a result, there isn’t a bad seat in the house. If fact, they all offer a different perspective. I moved for each act and actually preferred the full view the balcony offered. The orchestra is still in the orchestra pit but in this configuration, it is a real pit in the middle of the stage.
At the top of the list is the astonishing costumes designed by Dean Mogle, who is a Professor and Head of the Costume Design and Technology Program at the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music. All of the various animals and insects are in cleverly constructed costumes, designed in a comic strip manner. A standout, even in this grouping, is the flock of hugely breasted chickens, led by a self-important prancing drum major of a rooster.
UNT faculty member Donna Marquet designed the minimal but effective set with gigantic leaves, platforms and scattered pillows that look like rocks and other forest floor. Lighting design by Chad Jung, a founding member of Fort Worth’s Amphibian Stage Productions (and frequent lighting designer for Fort Worth Opera), creates the mottled effect of sunlight coming through the forest canopy. There are some directorial non-singing additions that add to the creation of a forest with its myriad inhabitants, such as a gilded porcupine that slowly crawls around the perimeter of the orchestra section. Amy Hoang’s choreography and movement are valuable contributions; and Eaton’s vision coalesced this talented group of artists to create this truly exceptional production.
The opera opens in the forest with cavorting animals and insects. A huntsman, sung by the virile baritone Austin Murray, enters and takes a nap. A frog, being chased by a young fox, jumps in his lap. He discovers the perusing vixen cub and decides to bring her home as a pet. Unhappy in captivity, and now fully grown, the vixen chews through her restraints, kills the chickens, jumps the fence and takes over the badger’s home. The young vixen is sung by Tessa Newman and the adult version is excellently sung and acted by Alexandra Johnson.
The second act adds two humans. While in the neighborhood inn, the huntsman meets up with the Parson (Lawrence Hall) and Schoolmaster (Vineel Mahal). All three have an infatuation with Terynka, a local girl. The tipsy schoolmaster thinks that a sunflower is Terynka and pours his heart out to her. The huntsman takes a couple of inaccurate shots at the vixen. But things improve for the cunning little vixen when she meets the foxy love of her life (played by Sara Kennedy). They marry and promptly create a den of little foxes.
In the third act, we meet Harašta the poacher, sung by Jacob Tipoff, who is about to marry Termaka. He kills the vixen for a marital dinner and has a new coat for his intended. The Forester sees the vixen’s fur on the new wife and retreats to the forest to grieve. Just then, a descendant of the frog who started it all, jumps in his lap, and the cycle starts again.
David Itkin, UNT Professor of Music and Director of Orchestral Studies, does yeoman's service conducting the excellent orchestra. He is clear and precise as he leads the student cast and orchestra through Janáček’s rhythmically complex score. His job is made all the more difficult by being situated below the stage floor and not having a complete view of the action. His tempi felt a little sluggish on Thursday, lacking some sparkle, but it might have been a matter of opening night jitters.
The show is double cast and I saw the opening night ensemble. The entire group of student singers is superb. Give them all an “A.”
» The Cunning Little Vixen runs through Sunday, Nov. 11; and will be repeated on Dec. 1 as part of the Czech festival at UNT.