Opera North (The Cunning Little Vixen)
Theatre Royal, Nottingham
March 14 2023 (on tour till March 31: see operanorth.co.uk)
Review: William Ruff
Opera North’s Vixen is 40 years old but as life-enhancing as ever
When you see that an opera company is restaging a production that is nearly 40 years old, you may suspect that it’s part of a cost-cutting exercise. However, as soon as the curtain opens on Opera North’s latest revival of Sir David Pountney’s production of Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen, you know instantly why it’s back. It’s perfect.
It’s one of those relatively rare opera productions where everything works together to produce a totally unified work of art, one where your senses are at full stretch, where you listen with your eyes and see with your ears.
Janacek was inspired to write his opera by a newspaper strip cartoon which told the story of how a vixen is captured and taken home by a forester. She escapes, evicts a badger from his sett and sets up home with a fox. Janacek took what seems like a rather flimsy story and turned it into a life-enhancing reflection on the whole cycle of nature. Just a glance at the cast list will tell you that the opera teems with animal life: there are some wonderful stage pictures in Opera North’s production full of birds, beasts and insects. It must have been a dream for the costume designer and the creative team. Each creature looks not only beautiful but ingenious too: the costumes wittily exaggerate key characteristics rather than providing conventional fancy dress. And that is part of the point: in Janacek’s world the animals are like humans and the humans are as subject to natural laws and instincts as the animals.
The fact that there are so many children in the cast also makes an important point – although it’s important to stress that there’s nothing cutesy or sentimental about the story. The children remind us of the great cycle of life to which we are all subject. Creatures are born, reproduce, get old and die. Yes, there is death in the opera – but there are no tears because death is seen as a part of life, the young taking the place of the old. And this is as true for the story’s forester, priest and schoolmaster as it is for the badger, woodpecker and dragonfly. In fact, you sometimes forget which are the animals and which the humans – as in the very funny scene where the vixen tries to awaken the feminist and political consciousness of the hens: why live subject to the cockerel and the farmer when you can be free? Except, of course, that the vixen only really wants to catch them off-guard so that she can eat them.
The Cunning Little Vixen is an ensemble opera, if ever there was one. It seems invidious to pick from such a huge and accomplished cast – but Elin Pritchard as the Vixen and Heather Lowe as the Fox are a joy to watch and to hear, their courtship, marriage and parenthood managing to be touching, funny and very true to life. But every cast member brings huge energy and detail to their character, their movement as carefully crafted as their costumes and makeup.
Janacek is one of those composers whose style is so distinctive that his musical fingerprint can be discerned in every bar he writes. He uses a large orchestra but mostly very sparingly, either as soloists or in unusual combinations. Conductor Oliver Rundell seems completely inside Janacek’s unique sound world, alive to his rhythmic flexibility and to the ways in which the music supports the words. In fact, the music uncannily matches the stage pictures, one musical idea melting into another just as winter snow dissolves into spring sunshine. The company’s orchestra, spilling out of the pit into neighbouring boxes, creates some glorious sounds.
If you’ve missed this production over the years, then do try to catch it one day. Its essence really ought to be bottled and prescribed as a tonic. Until it is, seeing it on stage will do you a world of good.
Cast & creative (Nottingham March 14)
The Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North
SPIRIT OF THE VIXEN
Sir David Pountney
SET AND COSTUME DESIGNER