A Cunning Little Vixen Janáček Would Have Been Proud Of

25/07/2012

 Leoš Janáček, The Cunning Little Vixen: Soloists, Läckö Chamber Orchestra, Simon Phipps (conductor), Läckö Castle, 21.7.2012 (NS)

Cast:

Forester: Thomas Lander
Schoolmaster/Mosquito: Johan Christensson
Priest/Badger: Björn Blomqvist
Harašta, the poacher: Linus Börjesson
Forester’s wife/Owl: Eva Marklund
Sharp-Ears, the Vixen: Sofie Asplund
Goldenback, the Fox/Sharp-Ears’ mother: Elisabeth Haglund
Cricket/Hen: Frida Engström
Frog/Dog: Frida Josefin Österberg
Cockerel/Terynka, the innkeeper/Woodpecker: Åsa Thyllman
Grasshopper: Andrea Hagman

Children’s choir

Production:

Läckö Slottsopera
Director: Linda Mallik
Choreography: Nina Åkerlund
Costume design: Anna Ardelius
Makeup: Therésia Frisk
Set: Sten Jensen
Light design: Markus Granqvist
Translation: Linda Mallik and Catarina Gnosspelius
Orchestral arrangement: Jonathan Dove

The wedding of the Vixen (Sofie Asplund, left) and the Fox (Elisabeth Haglund). Photo: Petter Magnusson.

One of the most striking aspects of Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen is the composer’s loving and detailed depiction of the natural world. Where better then to stage this opera but under a cloudless Swedish summer sky, in a castle courtyard wafted by breezes smelling of grass and flowers and with swallows adding their song to the music?

The atmosphere helped, but even without it this production would be special. The director Linda Mallik has previously trained and worked as a conductor and pianist, experience that she used to create an exquisitely musical production. Everything on stage matched perfectly with Janáček’s music. Nina Åkerlund’s choreography was also wonderfully attuned to the music and gave the singers (and even the silent parts) an astonishing depth of expression. It is invidious to single out any particular part, but the grief of the Vixen’s mother (Elisabeth Haglund) at the end of the first scene was heartrendingly depicted.

Inventiveness and musicality were always evident. Most of the singers had multiple parts, and sometimes metamorphosed from one to the other on stage: the Schoolmaster turning himself into the Mosquito was a delight as he put on his flying goggles and readied his (red) straw. The children’s chorus (including some very young children) was also a joy to watch as they represented a gamut of fauna from flies to fox cubs. The cast all rose brilliantly to the demands of the music and the mime in the choreography.

The small orchestral ensemble (every part was played by a single player) achieved perfect balance with the singers throughout the performance, benefiting from the castle courtyard’s remarkably good acoustic and from the sensitive conducting of Simon Phipps. His tempi seemed totally organic to the music and maintained a beautiful sense of flow throughout the performance. The set and costumes were atmospheric. Gaunt black trees reminded the audience of the melancholy gripping the opera’s human characters while the colourful and inventive costumes for the animals brought out the irrepressible spirit of life and fun that Janáček celebrates.

There was certainly fun in all the right places: a more convincingly bird-brained gaggle of hens or a more gullible cockerel would be difficult to create. Frida Josefin Österberg’s lonely old dog acted with great feeling, managing to be both laughable and touching at the same time. The Schoolmaster’s (Johan Christensson) drunken confession of love to what he thought was Terynka (actually the Vixen hiding in a clump of poppies) was also comic and melancholic at the same time. Together with Björn Blomqvist’s mellow-voiced Priest and Thomas Lander’s Forester he made a lugubrious trio drowning their sorrows at the local inn.

L-R The Priest (Björn Blomqvist), the Forester (Thomas Lander) and the Schoolmaster (Johan Christensson). Photo: Petter Magnusson.

All of the leading soloists were excellent. Thomas Lander’s diction was so good that the audience could follow every word of the libretto (translated into Swedish as is Läckö’s custom). His voice was powerful but seemed to be tinged by his character’s melancholy. His singing was also deeply expressive, especially in the heartfelt finale. Linus Börjesson made a terrific Poacher, slipping right into character with a dark and lyrical voice. Elisabeth Haglund shone not only as the Vixen’s mother but also in the totally different roll of Goldenback, the fox from the next valley that Sharp-Ears fell for. Her acting was utterly convincing, and their courtship was one of the highlights of the performance.

Sofie Asplund’s Vixen blew me away. How such a young and relatively inexperienced singer can radiate self-confidence as she did is a mystery to me. (It may have something to do with her experience as Maria in the Gothenburg Opera’s West Side Story, which played for most of last season.) Her voice was radiant and had an impressive range. Her singing was matched by the quality of her acting, both of which blossomed in her interactions with other characters such as the Dog and (most of all) her beloved Fox. The Vixen is not always nice; for example, she and a posse of other small animals bully the “capitalist” Badger until he flees from his sett in a scene which Ms Asplund ruled. But she has a magnetism and an energy that Ms Asplund captured perfectly. Janáček’s Vixen is one of the most captivating female characters in opera and Ms Asplund did her more than justice.

Niklas Smith

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