The Royal Opera – The Cunning Little Vixen

The Cunning Little Vixen – Opera in three acts to a libretto by the composer after Rudolf Tĕsnohlidek [sung in an English translation, with English surtitles, prepared by Yveta Graff and Robert T. Jones, adapted by Simon Rattle]

Badger / Priest – Jeremy White
Forester – Christopher Maltman
Cricket – Peter Shafran
Caterpillar – Talor Hanson (front) & Korey Knight (back)
Mosquito / Schoolmaster – Robert Leggate
Frog – Harry Bradford
Young Vixen – Eleanor Burke
Blue dragonfly – Tom Sapsford
Forester’s wife / Owl – Madeleine Shaw
Vixen Sharp-Ears – Emma Matthews
Dachshund – Gerald Thompson
Pepik – Simona Mihai
Frantik – Elizabeth Cragg
Spirit of the Vixen – Lyn Routledge
Rooster / Jay – Deborah Peake-Jones
Chief hen – Glenys Groves
Pásek – Alasdair Elliott
Fox – Elisabeth Meister
Woodpecker – Amanda Floyd
Harašta – Matthew Rose
Hare – Marnie Carr
Innkeeper’s wife – Elizabeth Sikora

Royal Opera Chorus

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Charles Mackerras

Bill Bryden – Director
William Dudley – Designs
Paule Constable – Lighting design
Stuart Hopps – Director of Movement

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 19 March, 2010
Venue: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Emma Matthews as Vixen & Gerald Thompson as Daschund. Photograph: Johann PerssonIt has been a good week for Janáček buffs, with a production premiere of “Katya Kabanova” at English National Orchestra and now the first night of a revival (the third) of Bill Bryden’s 1990 production of “The Cunning Little Vixen” under Sir Charles Mackerras. Of course Sir Charles has done so much to champion this particular composer and devoted much effort and scholarship on authentic editions, so to hear him conduct the works themselves is always a treat. And so it proves, as it was his capturing of the colours and mood of this wonderful score with all its orchestral interludes and passages that stood out. Mackerras’s interpretation remain wonderfully mercurial and catch the restless and seemingly fragmentary nature of many of themes, rhythms and splashes that the composer penned, and which gives his music such individuality. Rarely indulgent, Mackerras does allow romantic surges full rein when needed, such as in the Vixen’s longing for freedom when in captivity, and especially when she matures and discovers her Fox! This latter moment had the ROH Orchestra, on top form, spinning out the repetitive thematic snippet with the heady eroticism of Richard Strauss at his best, whilst retaining that distinctive Janáček feel throughout. Janáček’s percussion effects and characteristic use of brass emerged clean as crystal from the pit. In my book, Mackerras is reason enough to go!

Bryden’s production dates from before the Royal Opera House’s closure and restoration. Some of the technical wizardry available today was not available then. This production with all its flying of aerialists, dancers and children must have really put pressure on the technical staff at the time as the old stage machinery was pushed to the limits of its capability, and possibly do so today. At moments the staging seems a little busy, and some aspects have dated – the dancing beer-bottles (a reminder that the early 1990s heralded such drinks in their designer packaging). Even the English translation seems curiously stilted with mention of plutocrats and the like, not to mention its slightly self-regarding cleverness.

Matthew Rose as Harašta & Marnie Carr as Hare. Photograph: PerssonOther moments still captivate however. The image of the spirit of the vixen flying around the night sky is still a potent one – especially with Mackerras lending orchestral assistance. It seems to catch the element of freedom tinged with imminent danger and unpredictability perfectly. William Dudley’s designs are full of nature’s seasonal colours with greens, browns and autumnal yellows dominant in the animal scenes and darker, more primary colours where the humans become involved. The dominant open wheel and the mobile round-toothed saw of time cutting through the scene changes still provide strong imprints of the cycles of nature. Bryden’s direction brings out the distinction between the carefree and progressive feelings that the composer gave to his animal kingdom and the rather more world-weary and disappointed tinge that permeates the longer-lived human characters – all living into old age with their youthful desires and ambitions unfulfilled. The potential brutality of nature and of life is captured, too. Indeed, one very young member of the first-night audience was audibly distressed by Harašta’s shooting of the Vixen. Perhaps other productions have a little more magic and charm, but this one has its compensations. I suppose one should be grateful for not having an ‘effects of global warming’ message rammed at one by a trendy director.

Emma Matthews as Vixen & The Hens. Photograph: PerssonThere was some good singing. Emma Matthews was a spirited and likeable Sharp-Ears, and if her voice does not have quite the amplitude or penetrative qualities of some of her predecessors in this production she uses it tastefully and musically. She certainly has stage quality and in this crucial role that matters. At this performance Elisabeth Meister had been promoted from the roles of Rooster and Jay to that of the role of the Fox. This was to have been sung by Emma Bell who had succumbed to appendicitis. Meister made a fine impression both vocally and dramatically in this tricky and high role and blended well with Matthews.

Robin Leggate and Jeremy White made much of their doubled roles as Mosquito/Schoolmaster and Badger/Priest respectively; both amusing and touching in their human frailties. Matthew Rose was a lyrical and imposing Harašta. Christopher Maltman gave a nicely individual reading as the Forester – more prickly and less genial than others before him (such as Thomas Allen), but none the worse for that. His paean to nature at the end was mellifluously sung. The ladies of the chorus were amusing hens, and mention must be made of Harry Bradford’s humorous Frog and Eleanor Burke’s confident Young Vixen – indeed all the children involved in the performance looked to be having a wonderful time.

And here’s the gripe. Why the late start? This is an opera that many might consider taking children to, despite the shooting that occurs in Act Three, and it does seem perverse to start a performance that lasts for just over two hours at 8 o’clock, when an earlier start-time might encourage some to bring along an audience for the future.

  • Further performances at 8 p.m. on 22, 25 & 29 March and on 1 April
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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