An opera about Walt Disney by Philip Glass recently had its premiere, and any year now we might see Les contes de Tintin or Fledermaus und Robin. But for now, the only major operatic work to be based on a cartoon is The Cunning Little Vixen, a 1924 piece by quirky Czech master Leos Janacek, that debuted in Brno. The composer was no callow hipster courting cool. He was 70, with two more incredibly innovative stage works to come, when he turned a daily newspaper strip dealing with forest-animal adventures into a funny, racy, rueful meditation on life’s brevity and transcendence—and, obliquely, his own love for a younger woman. The titular Vixen wreaks barnyard havoc, becomes a squatter and discovers the joys of sex. The humans around her go through life and love travails, and a frog gets the last word.
New York City Opera used to showcase Vixen in spiffy Maurice Sendak sets. Now, Juilliard Opera Center imports from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute a high-energy, abstract 2011 staging by Emma Griffin, brightly clothed by Jessica Trejos, who makes a natural world from gleaming retro pastels.
Anne Manson, who’s conducted almost all of Janacek’s orchestral works, leads a promising cast. “Half the piece is orchestral music—its emotional content drives the action forward,” says Manson, speaking to TONY. “What’s so extraordinary is this human/animal borderline zone, pointedly not differentiated musically. But the animals know they’re living in the present, whereas the humans—until that extraordinary surge at the end—are guys sitting around in bars, bemoaning the past.”—David Shengold