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Peabody stages Janacek's opera of animals, humans

Before 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)

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