Cunning Little Vixen, WNO, Cardiff, February 2013Posted on 25 February 2013
This opera pits the timeless amorality of the natural world against the emotions and melancholy of human beings. The former is represented by the Vixen, her family, and other forest animals, the latter by Forester, Schoolmaster, Priest and Poacher.
In the original story by Rudolf Těsnohlídek, based on drawings by Stanislav Lolek, the Vixen lives on, but Janáček has the poacher kill her. This injects a tragic element into the story, yet the end result is the same: the natural world continues regardless of human intervention, and in the final scene where the Forester recalls true love from the springtime of his life, another vixen appears. As he reaches out to catch her, his hand clasps a little frog, who tells him he’s not the same one as before — that w-w-was his grandfather. The natural world is a constant, and while the Forester and other humans live with the memories of love they have lost, the animals know that the meaning of life is life itself.
In David Pountney’s 1980 production, with its designs by Maria Bjørnson, the natural world is pre-eminent, and a small space opens up for those moments when the humans control things: the yard at the Forester’s home, and the inn where the three friends drink together. Otherwise it is the outdoors, where Nick Chelton’s lighting shows the change of seasons and day alternating with night. At one point the snow disappears in a pretty stage trick that made me laugh — a light moment, and the opera is full of them. The story may be as deep as the sky, but the whole thing embraces three half-hour acts plus one interval. In the Czech Republic it is Janáček’s most popular opera.
Musically it’s a treat, and in Act II when the Vixen finds her Fox and opens up to the joy of life, Sophie Bevan and the orchestra rose to heights of lyrical perfection. Her love duet with Sarah Castle as the Fox was glorious, with the orchestra under Lothar Koenigs playing with Wagnerian intensity. Alan Oke made a wonderfully dry Schoolmaster with his steady melancholy, David Stout was very effective in his Act III appearance as the poacher, and Jonathan Summers was full of character and vocal assurance as the Forester. As the opera ended I wished for more intensity in those final musical chords, but Lothar Koenigs gave an intensely lyrical rendering of Janáček’s score.
The production as a whole is a delight, and in Act I when the Vixen is tied up in the Forester’s yard, a dancer comes on to express her desire for freedom. Stuart Hopp’s choreography here fits the music to perfection, and Naomi Tadevossian showed true musicality in its performance. When the production was new it would have been a different dancer, as would be the children who played the small animals, but life goes on while human problems remain the same, and that is the point of this wonderful piece of Czech magical realism.
Performances continue at Cardiff, 26 Feb – 28 Feb; Birmingham Hippodrome, 7 Mar; Venue Cymru, Llandudno, 14 Mar; The Mayflower, Southampton, 21 Mar; Milton Keynes Theatre, 27 Mar; Theatre Royal, Plymouth, 4 Apr — for details click here.