Opera Theater Oregon: Janacek’s bucolic frolic

Caitlin Mathes is Vixen Sharp Ears in OTO's "The Cunning Little Vixen." Photo: Aralani Photography.

Caitlin Mathes is Vixen Sharp Ears in OTO’s “The Cunning Little Vixen.” Photo: Aralani Photography.

by ANGELA ALLEN

From almost shut down to sold out, “The Cunning Little Vixen” began its four-day run July 24 of charming pitch-perfect moments under the creeping twilight at Sauvie Island’s Wild Goose Farm.

With its own chickens and likely a fox, the farm fits Opera Theater Oregon’s knack for nailing offbeat venues. Now in its eighth shoestring-budget year of making alt-music for the open-minded operagoer, OTO once again pushed the envelope and satisfied the law: after losing its first week of performances when a flip-flopping land use regulator withdrew its earlier approval, the resilient company moved the opera outside the barn and performed in plein air.

Anything is possible, accessible and adorable, this performance proves, including ticket prices at $20.

Star power comes with Portland Opera’s former Resident Artist Caitlin Mathes singing the central role of Vixen Sharp Ears. We’ve heard the attractive, versatile soprano as Kate Pinkerton in Portland Opera’s “Madama Butterfly and this spring as the company’s title character in “Rinaldo.” She plays her rosy-cheeked “Vixen” role disarmingly naturally and flirtatiously, swishing her big red quilted tail and showing us her ability to stand in metaphorically for foxy human lovers. She sings well, too, perhaps best with Corvallis mezzo soprano Rachel Hauge as Golden Mane the Fox, who has a rich voice and cool stage presence.

The opera runs a fast-paced 110 minutes, with one intermission, and packs in enough quirkiness to appeal to most ages. OTO knows hooking kids is a good idea (the company’s marketing tagline is “Making Opera Safe for America”) and the production uses young performers well, including Sylvia Romero as the Young Vixen and the diminutive 8-year-old Greta Boelling as Frog and Fox Cub. Greta’s dad, tenor John Boelling, sings the Schoolmaster and Mosquito; mom Cynthia Boelling performs Owl and Hen. This is one cozy family affair, which fits the bill for the relaxed production.

The kid actors are fun to watch, as are other singer/actors interpreting a host of animals including hens, a rooster, hedgehog, woodpecker, cricket and grasshopper, to name a few. Performers mimic critters’ “voices” and body language with accuracy and humor – note Helen Funston as the Crested Hen and long-legged Deer. Wearing clues of fanciful costumes and head pieces (fussy feathers for hens, etc.), they all do a commendable job expressing their animals. Who doesn’t love watching the personification of fauna?

Professional dancers (a first for OTO) directed by choreographer Agnieszka Laska enhance the show with their interpretations of Butterfly, Fly and Ladybug. Nikki Leopold dances as the Dragonfly, a role with a bit more weight than those of the other dancers.

The Barn at Wild Goose Farm

The Barn at Wild Goose Farm

Czech composer Leos Janacek, a master at capturing folklore and folk music in his work, said he listened to animals for years and memorized their speech. “I’m at home with them,” he wrote in the early 1920s when “Vixen” premiered. As the program notes, his opera captures the “frenzied activity and peaceful contemplation” that marks country life. We see two generations of foxes and three of frogs as well as poachers, preachers and innkeepers.

Energetic OTO artistic director Erica Melton expertly directs the six-person ensemble: flute, clarinet, viola, violin, violoncello, harp, xylophone, glockenspiel and reed organ. The complexity of the music – not always harmonious – and the impressionistic libretto (how did the Vixen take over the Badger’s den? Whoops, missed that. She cunningly pees on it.) could be challenging if  “Vixen’s” whimsical tone hadn’t been just right. Thank you, Clara Weishahn, for spot-on sensitive stage direction.

The production’s theatrical aspects proved stronger than most of the singing, but as OTO regular Erik Hundtoft effective turn as the Gamekeeper proved, hefty singing voices aren’t needed for an audience of 100 that can sit close up to the small stage. Deac Guidi as Harasta the Poacher has a big voice, as do Mathes and Hauge, but volume isn’t key to the production’s appeal.

“The Cunning Little Vixen” continues July 25, 26, and 27. Though officially sold out, volunteers might be able to trade work for free entry. On Saturday, there is a farm-to table pre-show dinner, but don’t bet on getting tickets. Sold out.

Note: on Thursday, July 25 at 7 pm, you can console yourself for missing the performance of OTO’s current show by listening to a re-broadcast of its previous one, Menotti’s “The Old Maid and the Thief,” on Portland’s all classical radio station, KQAC, online or over the air.

Angela Allen is a Portland writer, photographer and teacher. She regularly reviews opera.

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