The Cunning Little Vixen, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, March 2010Posted on 20 March 2010
For anyone who loves magical realism this opera is one of the best, and the production by Bill Bryden makes the most of it, with forest animals on the ground and flying through the air. The dichotomy between the slow moving human world and the swift flow and change of the animal realm is brought out very well, and the springtime of Act III is beautifully portrayed. There’s a famous poem in Czech called May (Mai in Czech) extolling the mysterious powers of nature, and in his libretto, Janaček uses May as a metaphor for springtime. He was powerfully drawn to nature, and this opera, like its predecessor Katya Kabanova — also playing in London at present — pits natural forces against the contrivances of human civilization. Janaček wrote it in 1924 when he was nearly 70, three years after Katya, and both operas, along with his two final ones, deal with death in one way or another. This one in particular juxtaposes the aging of men with the cyclical renewal of nature.
Human civilization is mainly represented by three men, the Forester, the Schoolmaster, and the Priest, and at one point all three sit in a round orb suspended from above, reminding me of that nursery rhyme, Rub-a-dub-dub; three men in a tub. The three of them are, at least emotionally, frustrated, and the schoolmaster’s yearning for a gypsy girl, is like the yearning of man for nature, and parallels the forester’s original entrapment of the vixen, whom he can’t keep. In the event, the gypsy girl, whom we never see, marries the poacher, and the vixen marries the fox and produces a huge family. When the poacher shoots her, a small child in the audience burst into tears, which charmed some people, but this is not an opera for small children. It’s very much an adult work, and I think the Royal Opera have done the right thing to have it sung in English. The libretto by the composer is subtle, and worth understanding. That said, the opera first became known through its German translation by Max Brod, which gave us the English title. In Czech it’s called Vixen Sharp Ears.
The conducting by veteran Charles Mackerras was wonderful. This is the man who introduced British audiences to Janaček, and having him in the orchestra pit was a treat. The singing was very good throughout. Emma Matthews was a thoroughly charming vixen, and Elisabeth Meister gave a good portrayal of the fox, replacing Emma Bell at the last minute. Christopher Maltman was an excellent forester, and Robin Leggate and Jeremy White both did well as the schoolmaster and the priest, with Matthew Rose singing strongly in the bass role of the poacher.
But this is an opera to be seen as well as heard, and William Dudley’s designs, along with the movement directed by Stuart Hopps, have a wonderful charm. Magical realism is probably more widely known from something like One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but the Slavic version is also a joy. Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita comes to mind, and in the opera world Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges, written just three years before Vixen. If you don’t already know the opera, and even if you do, this production by Bill Bryden is a must-see.