The circus meets the ballet in some of the 20th century's greatest music is the way the Washington Opera's current production of Janacek's "The Cunning Little Vixen" can best be described. There is superb choreography, there are enchanting costumes, there is a high-trapeze act, there are flying machines and there are sets that feature gyring clocks and machine parts. But the most wonderful thing about this production, which was created for London's Covent Garden in 1990 and which has now opened at the Kennedy Center, is that it does not overwhelm Janacek's tender animal fable about human yearning and resignation.
A forester tries to domesticate a fox cub, but when Sharpears grows up she escapes by fomenting socialist revolt in the hen house; she takes over a badger's den; marries the fox Goldenstripe and, after raising a family, meets death at the hands of a poacher. The opera ends when the forester, back in the glen where he first encountered the vixen, falls asleep and has a vision about nature's renewal that includes a vixen cub. The interaction between the human and the animal plots is as subtle as that in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream": Human beings yearn for happiness, which perpetually eludes them in time's remorseless march; but that happiness is perpetually present in the eternal cycles of nature.
With its Industrial Age gears and machines, the staging (by Covent Garden's Bill Bryden) is a near perfect marriage of technology to nature. The cycling back and forth of the manned bicycles high over the stage, the whirling of the machines on the floor and the balletic movement of the exquisitely costumed dancers all suggest the diurnal and seasonal cycles that are part of Janacek's theme.
The music, which spurts and frolics in unexpected twists, wrings one's heart, and is expertly conducted by Christopher Keene. Mary Mills may not have a voice always equal to cutting through the orchestra, but she is an enchanting Sharpears. Stephen West has a more traditionally beautiful operatic voice that he uses affectingly as the aging forester who makes his peace with finding fulfillment as an observer in Janacek's magical woods.
The other men and women -- particularly John Lankston as the schoolmaster and the mosquito, Daniel Williams as the priest and the badger and Deirdra Palmour as Goldenstripe -- all make valuable contributions to this remarkable production.
For ticket information about "The Cunning Little Vixen," which will be performed through March 14, call (202) 416-7800.