The Cunning Little Vixen [Příhody lišky Bystroušky] – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by the composer after Rudolf Tĕsnohlidek’s serialised novella [sung in David Pountney’s English translation, with English surtitles, to a reduced orchestration by Jonathan Lyness]
Vixen – Julieth Lozano
Forester – Kieran Rayner
Fox / Dog – Frances Gregory
Badger / Priest – David Howes
Schoolmaster – Gabriel Seawright
Harašta – Aaron Holmes
Mosquito – Laurence Panter
Innkeeper – Edmund Caird
Forester’s Wife – Rozanna Madylus
Rooster / Jay – Lucy Mellors
Chocholka / Woodpecker – Caroline Taylor
Pepik / Hen – Mimi Doulton
Frantik / Hen – Emma Charles
Owl / Hen – Emily Kyte
Innkeeper’s Wife / Hen – Joanna Harries
Frog – Dominic Clements & Charlie Philips
Grasshopper – Jessica Bradford
Cricket – Bethany Allan Molland
Young Vixen – Alina Jones
Fox Cub soloist – Hermione Buchanan
Longborough Youth and Festival Choruses
Olivia Fuchs – Director
Nate Gibson – Designer
Jake Wiltshire – Lighting designer
Lauren Poulton – Lauren Poulton
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 1 August, 2021
Venue: Longborough Festival Opera Theatre, Longborough, Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire, England
More than a year of Covid-induced lockdowns and restrictions have made many yearn for, among other things, nature and the sociability of live performance in the theatre. The Cunning Little Vixen ostensibly answers both of those needs at once, although not straightforwardly in this presentation, as any probing, inquisitive audience must surely welcome, if theatre is not to become ossified into a predictable and comfortable foray into established repertoire (and Vixen surely has obtained the status of an acknowledged classic).
Nature is largely elided in Olivia Fuchs’s production, though seemingly deliberately, in order to hint at it through absence – a lone shrub represents it physically, whilst the sylvan scene is otherwise set more generally by the words “wood wide web” chalked on a board to suggest mischievously that our experience of the natural order has become so mediated by the internet. Instead, the phenomenon of theatre is brought more to the fore (and celebrated) in this interpretation, in that Janáček’s animal characters are not explicitly presented as such (as they often are). True, they do flit, twitch, and lark around as animals behave – particularly the brood of hens in Act One, replete with red feathers – but otherwise, in appearance, they take their cue from the traditions of circus and cabaret, bringing them into line with the world evoked by the circus-like Big-Top marquee structure which Longborough Festival has erected this season for three of its four productions in order to cope more effectively with pandemic measures. David Pountney’s translation ironically underlines the knowing presentation of the work in the artificial setting of the theatre at several points, and also pungently drives home the themes of class hierarchies, political progress and radicalism, gender relations, and sexual awakening elsewhere.
Each tableau is distractingly signposted by its own title chalked on the board, displayed to the audience and then propped against the tree, which rather breaks the organic unity of each of Janáček’s three Acts. In any case, the repetition of this device is rendered virtually irrelevant by the animated choreography of the young cast (who are quite capable of conveying the emotional temper of each scene) – positioned in the round – never mind by the careful interweaving of the human and animal realms in Janáček’s original which makes the same points with vastly more poetic eloquence.
The cast of singers is comprised from Longborough’s emerging artists scheme, and they prove highly adept in negotiating Janáček’s unique musical idiom, with its often fast-shifting patterns of melodic cells, even if the English words seem sometimes to be hectically declaimed in the rush to get them out, rather than more naturally fitted to the brittle, motoric shimmer of the musical textures.
Julieth Lozano is a steely, assertive Vixen, rivalled in this performance only by the still more forceful projection of Frances Gregory as her lover, Gold-Spur the Fox. Kieran Rayner brings a degree of warmth and gentleness to the role of the Forester (as the Gamekeeper becomes here) rather than the sternness of an ogre. That is left to Aaron Holmes’s Harašta (the Poacher) whose threat to the foxes is signalled by his lustrous singing that rings like an ironically mellifluous clarion call. The other roles come and go in quick succession, and are sung charismatically – among them, David Howes’s authoritative Priest and Joanna Harries’s trenchant Innkeeper’s Wife might be singled out. Collectively, the Hens provide a measure of good fun as the Vixen attracts their attention and stirs dissension by discussing feminism and socialism before killing them.
Given the relatively confined space of the Big-Top, the reduced orchestration by Jonathan Lyness (comprising one to a part on the instruments used, leaving out some of those called for in Janáček’s colourful score) hardly registers as a lack. The textures become more streamlined and striated, but rather than becoming threadbare or skeletal, the great alacrity with which the players pass around their motifs under Jonathan Brown’s attentive conducting ensures that the music remains pert and vital. Together with the chorus, he builds the ensemble to galvanising climaxes at the end of Acts Two and Three. Whatever dimensions are lacking in the production are more or less made up for in these vivid and potent musical performances, which convey the life-affirmative spirit of Janáček’s creation.