Winning Vixen – Royal Academy Opera (26 March)

The Cunning Little Vixen

Sharpears / Vixen – Jenny Ohlson
Fox – Delphine Gillot
Forester – Rodney Clarke
Schoolmaster – Andrew Clarke
Parson / Badger – Joakim Schuster
Haraschta – Seung-Wook Seong

Assorted flies, dragonflies, crickets, grasshoppers, mosquitoes, cocks, hens, frogs, foxcubs etc

Royal Academy Opera
Royal Academy Sinfonia
Sir Charles Mackerras

Director – Anna Sweeny

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 26 March, 2003
Venue: Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, London

We have been lucky in our Vixens – David Pountney’s English National / Welsh National Opera is still worth catching (as it travels the world – Sir Andrew Davis conducts it shortly with the La Scala company at Milan’s Teatro degli Arcimboldi); Bill Bryden’s sumptuous and seamless version for the Royal Opera, revived only last month with Sir John Eliot Gardiner finding the opulence of Richard Strauss in Janáček’s score, and now this utterly charming production which graces the Sir Jack Lyons Theatre at London’s Royal Academy of Music.

Directed by Anna Sweeny, who – on the basis of the first of two casts – has instilled a genuine sense of enjoyment in all the players, immediately overcoming any potential embarrassment in acting the assorted cast of woodland creatures Janáček demands, this production boasts simple but effective and beautiful designs by Michael Holt. Lit with a fine eye for light and shade by Leonard Tucker, the stripped set (like a silver birch in effect) sometimes bears a striking resemblance to Rousseau’s famous forest pictures. The costumes are witty – I particularly liked the spotted dog of Sofia Floden, the cricket and the grasshopper – and the ladies who doubled both hens and foxcubs spent an evening of costume changing which probably produced much frivolity backstage.

The immediate difference to Bill Bryden’s production is that sopranos here took the roles that in the Royal Opera version were mostly taken by children (which introduced, in one fell swoop, an ’awwwww’ factor). On the Sir Jack Lyons stage there’s a problem of scale – flies and frogs being almost the same size as the badger (although Joakim Schuster as the badger, doubling the parson, is very tall). But this is an opera that can easily encourage an audience to suspend disbelief.The one costume misjudgement was the badger – too brown and bear-like, rather than monochrome.

Sweeney brought out Janáček’s contrasting tales, which each offer a gloss on the other, of human ennui and the cycle of nature, and was blessed with good singers who can also act. Of the humans, Rodney Clarke’s imposing Forester is richly toned and he looked the part, his (non-related) namesake Andrew more timid (in character) as the teacher.Jenny Ohlson was cheeky and immediately likeable as the titular Sharpears, fetching in her orange and red fox suit and with an impish penchant for twirling her tail. The meeting with and subsequent courting by Delphine Gillot’s Fox was perfectly handled. And the poacher’s drunken murder of Sharpears was suitably shocking, as Ohlson had made the character so endearing. The gunshots, as provided by the orchestra, quite superb.

Equal to the imagination on stage is the imagination in the music. Sir Charles Mackerras eschews recent tendencies to enfold Janáček into the European mainstream tradition, conduct it like Strauss. Rather he recreates Janáček’s completely individual soundworld, bringing freshness to the score, which was totally winning. The Sinfonia played to the manner born and I was aware that I was hearing things in the score that seemed to have been occluded before.

Mackerras returns on Saturday night to conduct the second cast (Sarah Tynan, Rebecca Cooper, Anders Kjellstrand, Edward Lyon, with Joakim Schuster still in the double role of Badger/Parson, and William Berger), who get their first outing tonight (Thursday) with conductor (and Mackerras protégé) Alexander Briger. Briger also conducts on Friday with the first cast. In all you could get to see four different permutations over the four nights. I suspect all four would be worth catching, but (regrettably) I’ll just have to rely on my fond memories of this first night.

One final word of praise for the Royal Academy – the programme cover is a delight, with the cheeky fox image on the poster facing a hen across the first few pages – there’s a sense of fun here that has spilled over from both the stage and the orchestra pit, and sent me out with a smile on my face.

  • The Cunning Little Vixen – Royal Academy of Music until 29 March. Performances begin at 7pm. 020 7873 7373
  • Royal Academy of Music

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