The Cunning Little Vixen, Glyndebourne, May 2012

Standing outside in the grounds of Glyndebourne facing the ha-ha near the new statues of hunting dogs, one looks to the left and sees a green hill just like the one on stage; and in front of the stage hill is a tree made of pieces of wood.

Dragonflies, all images by Bill Cooper

The stage tree lends an air of simple magic to the forest scenes and appears in varied clothing, sometimes bare, sometimes with buds or full foliage according to the season, and this is where it all happens. Animals appear in the tree, and beneath its roots the badger makes his home, only to be evicted later by the vixen. And while the tree stays in place throughout, the inn appears from nowhere, its walls moving rapidly into place in pieces, and it disappears just as quickly.

Vixen trapped by the Forester

These wonderful set designs by Tom Pye, along with Paule Constable’s gloriously varied lighting, and Maxine Doyle’s choreography for the animals, give a marvellous sense of reality to the natural world. When the vixen and the fox meet, fall in love and get married, the dance for the forest’s inhabitants has the quality of a spring ritual, hinting ever so slightly at the Rite of Spring, and in Act I the movements for the cockerel and hens are a delight. Dinah Collin’s costumes are excellent and those for the hens, portrayed as prettily sexy girls in high heels, are inspired.

Vixen and Fox in love

Melly Still’s production has the great quality that the natural world of the forest is primary and the humans mere appendages, here today and gone tomorrow. That is the heart of this opera — humans age and cope with disappointment and loneliness, while the animals go on forever. The young vixen is trapped by the forester, taken from the wild, escapes, finds a mate, and creates a huge family. Later she is shot by the poacher, but in the end another young vixen appears, progeny of the earlier one. While the schoolmaster regrets lost love, the priest talks of Xenophon’s Anabasis, but the animals have no such emotions or history to depress or sustain them, and for them the point of life is life itself. There is wisdom in nature, and one of the great poems in Czech, Mai (meaning May) extols its mysterious powers. Janaček was strongly drawn to the natural world, and his music and libretto, written when he was nearly 70, are superb. It first became known to us through its German translation by Max Brod, which yielded the English title, but the original is Vixen Sharp Ears, and in the Czech Republic it is Janaček’s most popular opera.

The wedding

Visually this production is a knock-out, and Vladimir Jurowksi conducted the London Philharmonic with huge spirit. Lucy Crowe sang and performed the Vixen beautifully, with Emma Bell giving a fine performance of the Fox, and Sergei Leiferkus singing an excellent Forester. Adrian Thompson was a wonderfully vocal Schoolmaster, with Misha Schelomianski showing depth as both Priest and Badger, and William Dazeley singing strongly in the bass role of the poacher. The animals, portrayed by singers, dancers and children, were brilliant, and this was a great team performance, with Thomasin Trezise delightful as the main hen. None of the cast was Czech, except Lucie Špičkova, who gave a fine portrayal of the dog, but they sang in the original, so surtitles were essential.

If you saw this at Covent Garden two years ago, go again because this production is quite different, but equally valid. It’s wonderful fun.

Performances continue until June 28 — for details click here.

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