Encore Michigan

“The Cunning Little Vixen” charms at Detroit Opera

Review May 13, 2024 Elizabeth and Graham Mitchell

DETROIT, MI–Detroit Opera concludes the 2023-2024 season with Artistic Director Yuval Sharon’s avant-garde production of Janáček’s comic opera The Cunning Little Vixen. Through animated projections, the singers are transformed into forest creatures harkening back to the story’s comic strip origin.

For the first time in its history, Detroit Opera is producing an opera by Leoš Janáček and in this humble critic’s opinion it is about time! The Czech operatic repertoire is incredibly beautiful, and this work is no exception. While Janáček’s score is full of rich, lush harmonies and soaring vocal lines, the opera also sparkles with moments of humor and lightheartedness.

A master of setting his native tongue, the Czech language is key to the music. Of this Sharon said, “Janáček’s melodies come from the natural rhythms of Czech,” and he is right. For this reason, Detroit Opera brought in Czech specialist Dr. Timothy Cheek to coach the singers on their diction and the music is a highlight. Conductor Roberto Kalb masterfully leads a notoriously difficult score with seeming ease and finesse and the Detroit Opera Orchestra rose to the challenge.

Mané Galoyan as the Vixen and Alex Rosen as the Badger in Detroit Opera’s May 11, 17, and 19 performances of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, directed by Yuval Sharon. Photo courtesy Detroit Opera/Austin Richey

As originally created by The Cleveland Orchestra, instead of actors playing animal characters in costume, Sharon takes the transformation a step further with fully animated bodies and the singers stick their head through peep holes in the set. Sharon says, “The concept started with thinking about those photo stands you see at the beach where you put your head in, and your body’s transformed. It’s so charming – it’s your face, but you’re in the body of a beetle or you’re suddenly a surfer, because you put your head into this two-dimensional thing.” To accomplish this, the set is a shell of white screens on which animations are projected and include windows and doors that open for the singers – some of you may be reminded of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In. When outside of the animation, singers walk on a platform and down ramps to the stage level. This downstage set mimics the two-dimensional projected animations on the screens by Walter Robot Studios. “The animation that Walter Robot created is all digitally created, but from handmade objects.” Sharon said. “It’s got a new and old quality to it.”

The concept is delightfully brought to life through the projection and lighting design by Jason H. Thompson, stunning costumes by Ann Closs-Farley, mask design by Cristina Waltz, make-up and hair design by Joanne Middleton-Weaver, and the gorgeous props that all work together to bring the 2-D world of the original comic strip into our 3-D world.

Mané Galoyan sings the title role of the Vixen and brings a great deal of humanity, nuance, and fun despite only seeing her face for most of the show. Her voice is rich and expressive as are her facial expressions. The scene when she appears in full form with the Fox – beautifully sung by Samantha Hankey – is a joy and highlight of the opera. The story follows her character from being abducted as a young kit by the Forester, her escape from a brutal existence on his farm, and finally to the embracement of her independence in the untamed forest.

Our primary human character is the Forester, expertly sung by Michael Sumuel. Mr. Sumuel delivers a powerful performance showcasing the complexities of human nature. In the beginning, the Forester tries to dominate and control the Vixen, obsessing over her after she escapes and tries to destroy her. In the end, however, he recognizes that he is part of the natural world and that humans need to treat nature with respect.

Detroit Opera’s production of The Cunning Little Vixen is one you should not miss. The score is exquisite, the principles are perfectly cast, both the adult and children’s chorus led by Suzanne Acton are on point, and the orchestra is phenomenal – all making this production a musical triumph. Where things land a little ‘flat’ (pun intended) is in the animation itself. While the style is wonderful, the projections did tend to get a little repetitive at times and were frankly not as engaging as seeing the performers themselves. While technology is a fantastic tool in storytelling, we hope directors worldwide do not lose sight of what makes opera truly great: the singers and the humanity they bring to the stage.

There are two more chances to catch The Cunning Little Vixen, Friday, May 17th at 7:30pm and Sunday, May 19th at 2:30pm. Please be advised, run time is over 90 minutes with NO intermission.

While the opera is mostly family-friendly, there is some strong language and violent imagery.

For tickets and more information visit DetroitOpera.org.

PHOTO: Mané Galoyan as the Vixen and Alex Rosen as the Badger in Detroit Opera’s May 11, 17, and 19 performances of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, directed by Yuval Sharon. Photo courtesy Detroit Opera/Austin Richey