Janacek's 1924 opera of life and death in the forest, written when he was nearly 70 (and just four years before his death) has long been regarded as one of his most accessible works, particularly in Germany, where the legendary Berlin production by Walter Felsenstein in 1956 put it on the world map. And yet in some ways it is a highly elusive work. Get the tone wrong, and it becomes all pantomimic and cutesy. Go all out for the human drama, and it becomes portentous. Janacek and his wife Zdenka thoroughly disliked the piece when they saw its Prague premiere in 1925, finding that it had lost all its bloom. Four weeks later they saw it again in Brno, in its original production which they already knew, and were almost relieved. As Zdenka wrote in her memoirs: 'After the performance, Leos heaved a sigh of relief, we looked at one another and said to each other: it's beautiful after all'.
Beautiful it is indeed, especially when given in the sort of production that David Alden mounted at the Grange. He had clearly thought through all its anthropomorphic implications and gave us a fluid, strongly-etched account of what can often seem like a series of impressionist scenes. The binding visual element was the single set designed by Gideon Davey, a large room painted in forest green, with a whole series of intricate contrasting motifs (and a few real antlers) covering the walls. Along all its three walls ran a wide bench seat, and stage right was a huge picture window looking out over the forest beyond. The stage floor had the requisite number of trap doors and openings to serve as the badger's sett (and the Vixen's subsequent love nest) and the whole stage picture, subtly and evocatively lit by Wolfgang Goebbel to indicate the changing seasons, became an enchanting place. It was human habitat and forest all in one: man as animal and animal as man.
Like those of his twin brother Christopher, productions by David Alden often provoke strong reactions. He can over-politicise the pieces he tackles, weigh them down with 'relevance' and baffle his audience. But with this Vixen he does none of the above. Rather, he deconstructs the piece into a haunting fable of life and death, impossible love and bucolic good humour. He moves his cast well, bringing the smaller roles briefly and vividly to life, but never loses sight of the narrative that Janacek constructs through the medium of his animal characters – the implication that we are all captives, in one way or another, and that regardless of our individual fate, life goes on. The genius of Vixen is its romantic naturalness: death comes, but without sentimentality and without melodrama.
Robert Poulton sang the Forester, confirming the strong impression he made as Falstaff at the Grange in 2007. His projection is natural and easy, the voice always bang in the middle of the note with thrilling reserves of power when required. An obvious inference from the way he played the role was that this was all Janacek's own dream, a look back at the troubles of his own life and an admission that the true love he felt was for the Vixen (Kamila Stosslova in real life). But he really came into his own in the final apotheosis aria, commanding the stage, riding the orchestra effortlessly and producing a wonderful, touching vocal characterisation of the complex figure that dominates Vixen from the outset.
The title role was taken by Ailish Tynan, who has come on immeasurably since I last heard her, singing Susanna to the Figaro of Matthew Rose at WNO. Tynan looked and acted Sharp-ears to vivid whimsical effect. Her mane of red hair was enough to suggest the character: at times she carried a vixen's head as well. Eyes flashing, dressed in a flimsy satin slip, she flirted with the audience and beguiled us all with a full-blooded, expressive tone, bordering on the sharp at times (not unpleasantly so) but always secure in her musical line. I liked the way she shaped her phrases, keeping forward momentum and bringing energy and vitality to the part. This was a terrific performance.
Opposite her as the dog fox was Frances Bourne, who goes from strength to strength in my judgement. With a thin pencil moustache and a costume that looked as if it really belonged to an RAF mechanic, Bourne swaggered and preened 'herself' to the manner born for a fox that fathers such a collection of cubs! Her voice has a light, mezzo bloom and she sang the part well within herself, portraying the role mainly on the 'less is more' principle. I liked the incision of her attack and her instant ability to vary her dynamic in the ensemble passages. She was strongly cast in the role.
The supporting cast all made decent impressions, if that is the right way to describe the collection of losers and has-beens that Janacek portrays as the humans in his fable (the animals are of course the real heros and heroines). As Harasta, David Stout had his chance to fill the stage and seized it, singing out with the brash confidence that a Central European poacher has to have. Carol Rowlands was a blowsy forester's wife, Wynne Evans a melodiously mournful schoolmaster. The chorus of animals was a rag-bag army of adults and children, the hens being cheerfully (and colourfully) decapitated one by one and the fox cubs running around the stage with their heads in cardboard boxes. At times it was as if Alden sought to remind us that the whole work started life as a comic strip: but, wisely, he did not go too far down that line. The choreography by Ben Wright was boisterous and basic, and came perilously close at times to parody: but in Janacek's miraculous score, nothing outstays its welcome, and the action moves on.
The English Chamber Orchestra under André de Ridder came in for some criticism from those who saw the early performances of this Vixen. I have to say that I completely disagree – by the time I saw it, the last performance on 4 July, the orchestral playing was assured, confident and full of characteristic colour. De Ridder clearly knows this score: he never dawdled, managed a fine balance between woodwind, brass and strings, and supported his singers expertly. All of Janacek's rich harmonies and strange sonorities emerged from the pit, with stage and orchestra nicely in tune (and in time) with each other. The final scene, in which the Forester reminisces and the orchestra reminds us of all that has gone before, was particularly poignant and effective, setting the seal on a wonderful evening of music theatre. No wonder that this was the music, under Frantisek Neumann's baton, that was played at Janacek's own funeral. And no wonder that his wife Zdenka described it like a strong stream of light shining through the eerie indistinctness of what had just gone before. It truly is a marvellous apotheosis.
So, a production full of insight, an evocative staging, a finely played and sung account of a Janacek masterpiece. What more can one ask for - it is a production of which Grange Park can and should be proud.
Photo Credits: Alastair Muir
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