Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen is a perplexing but masterful opera, full of darkness, yearning and joy.
On the surface it is a fantastical story, that of a Vixen who is captured by a Forester and who escapes, after causing a minor Orwellian revolution amongst the hens. She falls for a Fox, and my apologies for the spoiler, she is gunned down by a poacher. Into this story of the natural world, Janáček pours all his feelings about women (little vixens – men are weak) and man’s ambiguous relationship with nature.
English National Opera’s new production navigates all this unusual territory with aplomb.
There are a lot of things happening on stage. Jamie Manton’s direction was both fluid and ordered. Mushrooms, hens, insects, a frog, a gigantic dog resembling a puffball, and foxes, moved around the stage, interacting with humans but most of the time ignoring them. Surprisingly there was no cluttering, or disarray, the children portraying the animals and plant life, moved expertly and played their roles convincingly. Loved the Child Vixen and the deadpan Frog.
Tom Scutt’s scenery was beautifully painted, but it was a big old stage to fill. The strategy of unrolling scrolls of trees, a blazing sun, seasonal plants worked well up to a point, but I still would have liked a little more to make me believe I was inside that forest. There were large spaces revealing the darkness at the back of the stage but perhaps that was the point.
Janacek’s rich orchestral score, drawing on the sounds of birdlife, filled in the spaces and took us into that the magical forest. What is so interesting about Janáček’s opera score is its hybrid quality. On the one hand the singers half talk-half sing, referred to as ‘speech-melody’ in opera. It was a technique that Janáček excelled at. In complete contrast Janáček also provides the audience with lyrical orchestral interludes, often short-lived, which make the audience yearn for more. Only in the final act does the Forester break free of his short speech patterns and launch himself into a longer, uninterrupted aria.
I was riveted by Lester Lynch’s portrayal of the Forester. His baritone, even in the spoken phrases, was not only commanding but shaped and beautiful. His fine diction meant that I could capture every word of the finale where he reflected sadly on his Vixen and then, with increasing fervour, sang about nature, its cycles, and its ability to renew itself. It was completely entrancing, Straussian horns helped him along his way.
Impressive too was Sally Matthew’s soprano, full, lush, polished – her personality brought energy to the stage. A little disappointing was her relationship with Fox sung by Pumez Matshikiza, whose soprano voice exuded confidence in the lower range but was a little shrill on the top notes. The intimacy of their relationship was rather lost on the Coliseum stage.
The other characters, notably Alan Oke as Schoolmaster, sick with love, impressed as did bass baritone, Ossian Huskinson’s singing the part of Harašta, the confident poacher.
And the most important – I shed a real tear of sadness and joy when the offspring of the Vixen, the Frog, and the other animals appeared on stage at the end.
Recommended for Janáček’s stunning score and the two leads, Lester Lynch and Sally Matthews.
Performances of The Cunning Little Vixen at English National Opera : Evenings 19.30pm : Tues 22nd Feb, Thurs 24th Feb, Sat 26th Feb matinée 14.30pm and evening 19.30, Tues 1st March 19.30pm