On these shores and considerably further afield, Opera North is held in peerless regard for its Janáček productions. This vintage staging of The Cunning Little Vixen, revived here from its last appearance in 1984, formed the root of a now burgeoning reputation.
Maria Björnson‘s exquisite, almost fairyland animal costumes, her beautifully-apt, undulating countryside set, David Pountney‘s witty, sometimes savage English translation and Janáček’s most engaging, happy score blend to give us an unforgettable evening.
The composer first came across Vixen Sharp-Ears’ adventures as a popular cartoon strip in his daily newspaper. Her struggle for survival and procreation involves unavoidable headlong clashes with everything and everyone around her, humankind no more than yet another woodland species to be outscored. The opera’s uplifting, life-affirming closing scene merited its playing at Janáček’s funeral.
The cycle of life turns inexorably. For dancer Stefanos Dimoulas‘ Dragonfly, it is a quite silent end to its filigree flutterings at the close of its day. For Paul Gibson‘s irascible, capitalist Badger, it is a much more vocal eviction from the comfort of his cosy sett. Caught early in the opening Autumn glade by James Rutherford‘s imposing Forrester and confined as a pet, Elin Pritchard’s heroine Vixen first tries to introduce revolutionary thought to his docile, world-weary Dog. Finding that avenue fruitless, she then attempts a rousing feminist diatribe to his exploited Hens, but, upon their unquestioning mindset closed to all reasoning, they are slaughtered summarily and the Vixen escapes.
Romance appears in the form of Heather Lowe‘s affable young Fox. There is a verifiable operatic love scene and even a wedding. In the spring comes the inevitable question, “How many children have we got?” followed by its understandable response, “I don’t know. I can’t remember!” Sudden death, but not quite the end, arrives via a bullet from Callum Thorpe‘s resourceful Poacher.
All the principals are excellent. Janáček’s vocal lines being distilled from the rhythmical and pitch contours of the everyday speech he encountered in his native Moravia, the audience is freed from anticipating a blazing Puccinian aria. Instead, voices blend naturally in conversation, in accord or at loggerheads. There is strong support from Hazel Croft‘s Forrester’s No-nonsense Wife, Stuart Laing‘s taunting Innkeeper, Paul Nilon‘s insecure Schoolmaster, Henry Waddington‘s reflective Parson and those dumbfounded carolling Hens and Campbell Russell‘s equally bewildered corralling Cockerel.
Opera North’s orchestra, once more, glories in the lyricism and intensity of the Janáček’s score under Andrew Gourlay’s confident, sympathetic direction. Impressive dancing principals and a heartwarming corps of talented young performers as sundry animal characters convey admirably nature’s profusion.
An exceptional ensemble piece. Sung in English, yet still with those helpful English surtitles.
Friday 17 February sees a touring ON performance of Mini Vixen at the Howard Assembly Rooms in Leeds. Led by a cast of three professional opera singers and two instrumentalists, this 40-minute family show takes Janáček’s storyline as its basis: fox and vixen’s friendship protecting their home and their mystical woodland surroundings. This time, however, strictly no chickens are harmed in the telling.
Performances at Leeds Grand Theatre
Friday 17 February, Thursday 23 February, Friday 03 March 2023 at 7pm.
Saturday 04 March 2023 at 2.30pm
Then touring 07 – 31 March: Salford Quays, Nottingham, Newcastle and Hull
Photography by Tristram Kenton. Feature photograph: The Company of Cunning Little Vixen.