The University of Illinois' Lyric Theatre offered three performances of Leos Janácek’s opera “The Adventures of Little Sharp Ears” from Nov. 15-17 in Krannert’s Tryon Festival Theatre. I attended the Saturday performance, at the unusual hour of 5 p.m., evidently designed to attract young children. In many other productions, this opera, in part about the animal world, has proven very popular with youthful audiences.
A note about the title: A literal translation of the original Czech title would be “The Adventures of the Vixen Sharp-Ears.” The standard, if inaccurate, title for this work in the English speaking world is “The Cunning Little Vixen.” The title given to the present production is more correct but “little” is not in the Czech title.
Around 1920, Janácek was attracted to a series of drawings by Stanislav Lolek in a Czech newspaper, and these drawings inspired a novelle by Rudolf Tësnohlidek about the serio-comic adventures of a vixen, or she-fox. Using the novelle as a base, he wrote his own libretto. The opera, which was premiered in 1923, generally expresses a nostaglia for the innocence of nature, and a child-like joy, which is contrasted with the troubled life of a typical group of adults in a small rural community in the Czech Republic province of Moravia.
First and foremost, what impressed me in this production was the beauty of Janácek’s music. It soars eloquently behind the comic and more serious actions of the plot, and reaches magnificent heights in the final act in which the principal human character, a forester, eloquently sung by Chris Stanfill, realizes the grandeur of nature in what deserves to be called a “Transfiguration Scene.” In the other performances, Scott Cuva played the Forester.
Here let me congratulate Andrew Megill for the fine orchestral performance of the UI Symphony Players, whose music director is Donald Schleicher.
Aside from the music, this opera had a delightful comic side in the antics of Sharp-Ears and the other animals. The imaginative costumes for the insects and various other critters, designed by William Sturman, were a visual pleasure, and the natural looking animal movements, achieved by movement director Genesee Spridco, lent both realism and visual variety to the forest scenes.
Lauren Falk was outstanding as Sharp-Ears, both in her light-hearted singing and the vivacity of her stage actions. When she was shot in Act 3, mercifully off-stage, one felt a genuine pang of sorrow. In the other performances, Lisa Buhelos played Sharp-Ears. When, in Act 2, romance enters Sharp-Ears’ life, her loving partner was convincingly played by Berit Johnson (in other performances sung by Michaela Wright).
Sarah Wigley’s direction achieved an adroit balance between the frolics of the forest and the hum-drum woes of the tavern drinkers. The scenic design by Jia Zenpeng was simple and ingenious in creating different places by lateral movements. Others contributing to the overall success of this production were lighting designer Megan J. Coffel, sound designer Zia Fox, stage manager Maria Miguens, supertitles by Michael Tilley and musical preparation by Julie Jordan Gunn.
There were 23 named performers in the cast list. Faced with such riches of animal and human activity, let me just single out Stasia Kasimos for her opening and closing turns as the Frog, and then list the variegated panoply of animal characters: Caitlin Hennessy, Young Sharp-Ears; Caroline McKinzie, cricket; Anna Benoit, grasshopper; Anna Lowery, dragonfly; Nicholas Ian Koch, mosquito/innkeeper. Thereza Lituma, owl; Nicole Rodriguez Olivia, woodpecker; Kate Stenzel, bluejay; Kara Taft, rooster; Gabrielle LaBare, dog; Sergio Andrés Martínez Salazar, badger; and Sydney Hoel, fox cub. The human characters were played by Julie Malecki, Innkeeper’s Wife/mother hen; Elizabeth Frodge, Forester’s Wife; Craig Moman, schoolmaster; Lewis McAdow, Harasta, the poacher; Geoffrey Schmelzer, the Parson; Logan Piker, Frantik; and Carissa Yau, Pepik. Many of the above singers played double roles.
Members of the UI Chamber Singers, conductor Megill, offered a haunting choral introduction to the scene of Sharp-Ears’ wooing, and made especially joyous the exuberant music of Sharp-Ears’ wedding to Fox.
At curtain fall, the audience responded to this evocation of Janácek’s encomium to nature with strong applause. I will not look at a mosquito in quite the same way again.