Janácek: The Cunning Little Vixen

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 23 March 2010 4.5 stars

Emma Matthews as the Vixen (Photo © The Royal Opera/Johan Persson)Although Bill Bryden's beautiful staging of The Cunning Little Vixen for the Royal Opera House is almost twenty years old, and the first night of the current production represented the opening of the third revival as well as the production's twenty-first performance, there are many opera lovers who have not yet come across this opera, let alone this production.

I am new to Bryden's take on the Vixen, and I admit that I was spellbound by it. The staging is not only a feast for the eye, but – to these pairs of ears and eyes – it is also a faithful representation of Janáček's enchanting and meaningful score.

The plot and music of the opera assert the inevitable ensemble of humans and animals that is the force of nature. So it is of note that the most alluring aspect of the production is the ensemble between music and staging, adult performers and child performers, singers and dancers, orchestra and stage, chorus and soloists, the aural and the visual. There was only one minor ingredient, which slightly rattled the unity: the libretto's English version which was adapted for the Royal Opera by Simon Rattle – no pun intended – seemed to jar every now and again, even though one could excuse (or welcome) references to bankers or any other current issues. It is not clear, at least not to me, whether Rattle's adaptation of the text dates from twenty years ago or from more recent times (by when his Czech wife could have assisted him). 

Because of the admirable ensemble work, it seems almost wrong to single out individuals. However, full praise is due to Jette Parker Young Artist soprano Elisabeth Meister who was scheduled to sing the roles of Rooster/Jay but stepped in to take over the role of the Fox from Emma Bell (who was admitted to hospital and had an emergency appendectomy one day before the first night). Not only did Meister sing the part very well, but – as another credit to the ensemble work – Royal Opera Chorus member soprano Deborah Peake-Jones stepped in and excelled as Rooster/Jay. Soprano Emma Matthews (Vixen) showed no sign that she might have not met her fox until this opening night (or shortly before): their interaction was fully convincing.

Photo © Royal Opera/Johan PerssonBaritone Christopher Maltman gave a deeply sympathetic and vocally assured portrayal of the Forester. Arguably he had the most glorious music to sing; Janáček requested that on his funeral the final monologue of the Forester – reaffirming life, death and rebirth – should be performed.  Dancer Tom Sapsford (Blue Dragonfly) and aerialist Lyn Routledge (Spirit of the Vixen) took away my breath with their courage and artistry.

A large number of children participate, that is sing and dance. Although their names are listed in the programme, the solo singers – taking the roles of the Frog (Harry Bradford) and the Young Vixen (Eleanor Burke) – do not get any lines in the biographical notes. Why not?

Depending on interpretation, William Dudley's stage design is heavily symbolic or is only seeking visual effects. In either case, it is spectacular (with giant spinning rings and flying acrobats) and it enhances the encounter with this masterpiece. Stuart Hopps' choreography, that is direction of movement, is musical and realistic. For instance, he does not overtax the children yet he faithfully choreographs Janáček's motives and phrases. 

Taking charge of the music is that most experienced Janáček conductor, Sir Charles Mackerras. As I keep mentioning in my Janáček reviews, it is hard to come across conductors with Sir Charles' strong sense of rhythm which is so essential for Janáček's interpretation. Folk song and folk dance are always present or implied: here, for instance, in the wedding ballet and wordless chorus at the end of Act Two, in Harasta's (the poacher's) song at the beginning of the Act Three and in the fox cubs' scene. But Sir Charles also excelled in the lyrical sections; during the love duet between the Vixen and the Fox in Act Two even the timpani seemed to be singing. Most importantly, as a result of Sir Charles's affinity with the music, Janáček's sharply defined motives were crisply phrased.

It seems to me a shame that there are no matinee performances scheduled. The production is child-friendly, and in my opinion (which is based on teaching children for several decades) it is an excellent choice for a first opera outing. Although a child in the auditorium cried out when the vixen was shot (in Act Three) – and the audience's unified reaction (with 'aah' coming from all sides) created ensemble even in the auditorium – the stage direction is discreet, rather than literal. Cruelty, such as the Vixen killing the hen (in Act One), is more implied that graphically portrayed. Thus, notwithstanding the above-mentioned child's audible anguish on the opening night, I would urge families with children of school age to grab this excellent opportunity for introduction to the world of opera. But go at any age and enjoy.

By Agnes Kory

Photo Credits: © Royal Opera/Johan Persson