First Listen: Janacek, The Cunning Little Vixen

'The Cunning Little Vixen' at Avery Fisher Hall, June 21, 2011. (New York Philharmonic)
'The Cunning Little Vixen' at Avery Fisher Hall, June 21, 2011. (New York Philharmonic)

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It's a new tradition in New York: the annual mad rush of hipsters and septuagenarians alike to the limited run of whatever New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert has cooked up to end the season.

This year, it was a bold and beautiful choice: The Cunning Little Vixen by Czech composer Leos Janácek. First performed in 1924, Vixen was based on a daily comic strip of the time that chronicled the adventures of a female fox and a human forester.

Recorded live at Avery Fisher Hall in June 2011, Vixen is no kiddie fairy tale. Instead, this opera is an extended, strange meditation on lust, love, brutality, contentment and fleeting life.The opera tells the tale of a young female fox – the Vixen – as she is captured by the forester, taken into humiliating captivity as a pet, escapes back into the forest, discovers blissful love and the smaller pleasures of family life, and finally sinks into her inevitable death.

The astringent lyrics (sung here in English) and bittersweet narrative sluice over the rich layers of orchestral writing. Mossy death and precarious rebirth always hover nearby, whether in the story of the vixen herself and her anthropomorphic fellow forest-dwelllers or with the hapless humans, from a drunk priest to a schoolteacher who wastes his time pining for an unreachable beloved. The magical glow of the opera is tinged with a unshakable feeling of decay and death.

Janácek's score is a deft masterwork – and Gilbert, who deserves all hails for bringing this rarely heard opera back to New York, maintains its delicate balance. You can lose yourself in the score's swooning surges of lyrical lushness and yet still be pricked by Janácek's acidic twists on tonality, carefully limned by the Philharmonic musicians.

Isabel Bayrakdarian glows as the Vixen, spiking the animal's yearnings for freedom with brilliant top notes. The mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand captures the fox's dusky desire for the beautiful, impetuous vixen wonderfully. Other soloists are equally captivating, including the sweet-voiced tenor Keith Jameson as the schoolmaster and baritone Alan Opie as the befuddled Forester.

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