Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen – English National Opera, The Coliseum, London WC2. 4**** Clare Colvin

Janáček’s glorious hymn to nature The Cunning Little Vixen originated as a serial cartoon in a Czech newspaper.  Through the tale about the sly vixen Sharp-Ears, the 70 year old composer drew on his memories of the Moravian forests he grew up in, and linked the world of wild animals with that of the humans living among them.   The bitter-sweet mood of the opera reflected Janáček’s own thoughts about his old age, when he was infatuated with and inspired by Kamila Stösslová, a happily married woman many years his junior.

  Productions since the opera’s premiere in 1924 have varied as to the pantheistic guise of the singers, but in director Jamie Manton’s new production at the Coliseum – the first there since 2001 – designer Tom Scutt gives the animals costumes of metallic brightness that contrast with the opening scene of black-cloaked woodsmen wheeling piles of identically smooth logs on carts.   The lands are deforested, but the animal life glitters vividly.  

The action is constant, too busy at times, as the eye is drawn to the unreeling backdrop scroll that illustrates the progress of seasons or of musical notes.   Heading the cast is British soprano Sally Matthews in beautiful voice as the Vixen; snatched from the wild as a cub by Lester Lynch’s Forester who takes her home to amuse his children.  When she bites one of them, the Vixen is tied up but escapes into the forest after killing the Cockerel and his hens.

South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza is well matched to Matthews as the handsome Fox who courts the Vixen with a dead rabbit.  While the pair populate the forest with numerous cubs (drawn from attenders of local schools and youth companies), the ageing human inhabitants – in cameo performances by Alan Oke’s Schoolmaster, doubling as Mosquito, and Clive Bayley as Priest and Badger – gather in the pub to bemoan the falling away of youth.  The Forester – in a magnificent and deeply felt performance by Lynch – remembers the days when he was newly married, and resents the Vixen’s stealing of rabbits from his traps.  Meanwhile, bass-baritone Ossian Huskinson’s saturnine Poacher is out hunting for a fur to give to his foxy lady on their wedding day. 

Music director Martyn Brabbins conducts the Orchestra of the English National Opera at an emphatic pace to the final haunting scene as the Forester accepts his place in the cycle of life, while the forest continues on its way.    To 1 March

Conductor              Martyn Brabbins

                               Olivia Clarke (26 Feb)

Director                  Jamie Manton

Designer.                Tom Scutt

Lighting designer   Lucy Carter

Movement director Jenny Ogilvie

Chorus director      Mark Biggins    

Production pics      Clive Barda

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