Leoš Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen is a popular work on the opera circuit. Man’s uneasy alliance with the natural world is a theme which chimes particularly well with our times. Janácek wrote it way back in 1921 however, and he spent many an hour studying forest animals (as did many other composers worth their salt before him).
Opening night at Opera Holland Park, I was excited. I had never seen Cunning Little Vixen performed and I was curious to see whether all the hype and praise around this work in recent years, is deserved.
Within minutes of the orchestra striking up I was struck by the beauty and inventiveness of the score. The sounds of the forest and of each creature could be discerned in the music which was reminiscent of Debussy and Ravel but flavoured with Janáček’s own Moravian folk music and rhythms. At key moments of the Vixen’s or the Forester’s story, other lusher melodies burst in on the score. I heard Mahler or even Strauss. The more lyrical interludes were briefer, leaving me yearning for more. It came in the finale of Act 111 as the Forester receives his epiphany.
The power of the orchestra is keenly felt in this opera, particularly in its ability to create mood and tell a story. Sometimes the music it played was at odds with what was happening on stage – in a so-called tragic event – it acted flippantly. A few xylophone notes for instance in response to a shooting, which made me think of it as a separate character.
Under Jessica Cottis’s baton, The City of London Sinfonia, did a fine job of drawing out all the beauty of the score without overdoing the poignancy, for there is much light and hope in Janáček’s music.
The vocals also impressed. Vixen, Jennifer France conveyed mischievousness, innocence, and vulnerability in love, in her clear, bright soprano. Her romantic aria with Fox, Julia Sporsén, was profoundly moving – France engaged well with all of us, on a stage which goes beyond the pit and is so close to the audience. In the “Am I really so lovely” aria, she got our full sympathy, especially having revealed the ‘abuse’ and humiliation she suffered from her captor, the Forester.
Man in the opera is presented as ineffective and weak – especially in love or lust (Janáček counted himself among them). The scenes in the bar between the Schoolmaster, lonely Parson and brow-beaten Forester, worked well. Charne Rochford’s powerful tenor particularly stood out.
Rarely preachy, Janáček’s opera is thought-provoking. The animals do win over man in some respects. Fox and Vixen find true love, but their lives are threatened in a man’s world. When the Poacher, brilliantly sung by Ashley Riches (he was OHP’s Don Giovanni in 2017), bursts in and wreaks havoc on the village and animals, Grant Doyle as Forester, responds by going back into the forest. He reappraises his life. His final song is an exquisite celebration of nature and its ability to renew itself. A new Vixen enters on stage to illustrate the continuation of the cycle and with the ecstatic music – you yourself feel reborn.
This is an unsentimental, yet feel-good opera, with profound things to say. The staging is simple, no extravagant sets – they are not needed (you are under an elegant canopy in the middle of Holland Park in the heart of bird land after all!). This opera felt fluid and well directed by Stephen Barlow. I agree with him when he refers to The Cunning Little Vixen as ‘the most spiritual opera ever written, and perhaps the wisest.’ This opera is a must see.
*Ashley Riches was stand-in for singer Chuma Sijeqa – at my time of writing it is unclear whether Chuma Sijeqa is coming back to the role
Performances of The Cunning Little Vixen 13,15,17,21,23,28 and 30 July at 7.30pm
25 July at 2pm (Discovery Matinee and Relaxed Perforamance)