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Review: Long Beach Opera's 'Cunning Little Vixen'

January 18, 2009 |  3:31 pm

Ani_maldjian_in_the_cunning_little_

Long Beach Opera lives.

The company opened its 30th season Saturday night with a modest but resourceful and quick-witted production of Janácek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen.”  And leave it to this modest but resourceful and quick-witted company to somehow come back from what appeared near death just as its larger neighbor to south, Opera Pacific, bites the dust and its giant neighbor to the north, Los Angeles Opera, battens down the financial hatches for hard times.

Indeed, leave it to Long Beach Opera to buck any and all trends.  For the past two seasons, when everyone else was feeling flush, the struggling small company was canceling productions and barely surviving by substituting solo recitals for opera productions.

No doubt fundraisers still work overtime for every dime. But Saturday night in the intimate Center Theater artistic and general director Andreas Mitisek came on stage before conducting the performance to announce that a portion of the revenue from every ticket would be donated the Long Beach Rescue Mission.  “Troubled times need clever little foxes,” he said.  The house was full, which meant 1000 meals for the hungry.

Janácek’s theme is the struggle between man and nature.  Humans intrude but nature’s need for renewal is a force stronger than any we can muster.  Even in our nuclear age, nature always wins.

Perhaps the spirit of ecology, then, inspired Long Beach to rely on local resources.  The director Ken Cazan is based at USC and several of cast were his former students.  Ani Maldjian, who sang the title role, is a local soprano and proud Long Beach Opera discovery.  I don’t know that the wonderful costumes by Jacqueline Saint Anne, also at USC, were gathered from neighborhood thrift shops, but they looked it.

The cuteness factor in “Vixen” is always a central issue in any production.  Given that several characters are animals of the forest, the opera can be made suitable for children.  But Janácek was 70 when he wrote the opera in 1924 and, a late bloomer in all things, under an erotic spell.  The animals – and the orchestra – get all the sex and that can be played up Euro-trash fashion, or not.  The humans are a frustrated bunch.

Cazan made the animals a vivacious band of tramps.  And I found their noisy tramping around in old boots wore thin quite quickly, especially given that the opera was performed with a chamber orchestra in an arrangement by Jonathan Dove.  But making the Vixen a Chaplinesque little tramp was a striking invention.  The opera, after all, dates from the heyday of the silent film era and Janácek’s curious musical language follows images extremely well.

Maldjian proved something special when, barely out of school, she appeared for the company as Anne Frank two years ago.  Big things were immediately predicted for her.  They still are.  Her Vixen -- the endearing fox who outwits the Forester, serves as an animal activist and is sexually liberated – was radiant.  Cazan may have had her overdo the dancing and traipsing about, but Maldjian’s little things, and especially her fleeting Chaplinesque gestures, were pitch perfect.  So was her equally superb soprano.

She was joined by a troupe of excellent singing actors.  Again, a little less comic exaggeration would have probably gone a long way, but the cast was without weakness.   Michael Chioldi was a less gruff and more humane Forester than most.  Andrew Fernando made the roles of a dog, poacher and badger especially – and appropriately – gross.  Doug Jones was an effectively Kafkaesque Schoolmaster.  Though this was her first professional production, Peabody Southwell was an old pro as the randy, very male Fox. 

Some of the animals could ultimately get on one’s nerves.  The firefly (danced by Jennifer Hart Jackson) in her white leotard and aviator goggles became a tiresome presence after a while.  But the chickens, who might have been clucking old ladies out of Monty Python, were highly amusing.

And if the intent of Alan E. Muraoka’s set -- a couple of mounds with plastic flowers –- was to parody the Metropolitan Opera’s dreadful “Parsifal,” that too proved a very funny notion.

Mitisek kept the ensemble of voices and instruments, which were placed behind a sreen at the back of the stage, tight.  The reduced orchestration meant a certain thinness of sound, but most important moments, where the music expands to create the soundtrack for natural wonder, were splendid anyway.
“Cunning Little Vixen” is a perfect opera for an era when we must think carefully about our relationship to Earth.  It also sets exactly the right tone for Long Beach Opera’s own renewal.  Maybe all the company needed was a worldwide crisis to thrive in its small but necessary corner of the operatic world.

"The Cunning Little Vixen," Long Beach Opera at the Center Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. 4 p.m. Jan. 25. $45-$95. (562) 436-3661 or www.longbeachopera.org

-- Mark Swed

Caption: Ani Maldjian in "The Cunning Little Vixen" at Long Beach Opera. Credit: Ken Hively

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