Moral Themes and Attractive Performances in WNO’s Vixen

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Janáĉek, The Cunning Little Vixen: (Revival premiere) Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Lothar Koenigs, conductor, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 24.2.2013 (GPu)


Forester: Jonathan Summers
Vixen: Sophie Bevan
Mosquito: Huw Llywelyn
Forester’s Wife: Fiona Harrison
Dog: Julian Boyce
Cockerel: Michael Clifton-Thompson
Chief Hen: Meriel Andrew
Badger: Laurence Cole
Parson: Richard Angas
Schoolmaster: Alan Oke
Innkeeper: Martin Lloyd
Fox: Sarah Castle
Owl: Samantha Hay
Jay: Anitra Blaxhall
Woodpecker: Simon Crosby Buttle
Poacher: David Stout
Innkeeper’s Wife: Jessica Handley Greaves


Spirit of the Vixen: Naomi Tadevossian
Dragonfly / Dance Captain: Connor Dowling
Squirrels: Sophia McGregor, Ted Sikstrőm


Frantík: Sara Jane Waters
Pepík: Corey Wickenden
Cricket: Emily McConnon
Caterpillar: Rowan Clark
Frog: Josh Olsen
Foxcubs: Jamie Harrowing, Joss Church, Ethan Gauregui, Adam Mulligan, Dylan Mingay, Ffion Kelly, Niamh Bannister, Rhiannon Spannus, Emily Alford
Young Vixen: Maddy Carver
Flies: Theo Vine, Declan Ford
Hare: Caitlin Parry-Jones
Hedgehog: Georgie Treharne
Squirrels: Cordelia Wickenden, Hattie Harding


Director: David Pountney
Revival Director and Revival Choreographer: Elaine Tyler-Hall
Designer: Maria Bjǿrnson
Lighting Designer: Nick Chelton
Original Choreographer: Stuart Hopps
Chorus Master: Stephen Harris

It may have been premiered as long ago as 1980 but WNO’s Vixen (originally a co-production with Scottish Opera) continues to be full of vivacity. In this revival, the enduring attractiveness of the late Maria Bjǿrnson’s elegantly functional set and her witty costumes for the animals, along with the often impressive effects of Nick Chelton’s lighting, are supplemented by a well-developed awareness of the works’ intellectual and moral themes, an awareness which counters any incipient tendency towards feyness or sentimentality. Janáĉek’s words and music trace what appear to be a series of antitheses: the human world and the natural world, male and female, youth and age and, overarchingly, Life and Death. If the work is to be reduced to a ‘message’ (rather than experienced in the theatre) then we might summarise it as the need for human thought and feeling to be grounded in a recognition that these seeming antitheses are only superficially so; Properly understood they are necessary complementarities, each of which gives meaning and value to its ‘opposite’ in a larger scheme of things which, for Janáĉek is symbolised by the seasonal cycle.

With its animal plot and its human plot which interact and comment on one another, The Cunning Little Vixen is perhaps unique in the operatic tradition. The Vixen’s rebellious youthfulness contrasts poignantly with the aged disillusionment of most of the human characters; her unbridled femininity contrasts with the male dominated human world, which patriarchally limits female freedom – even that of the hens, as the Vixen is keen to point out (before she kills them) – relating the work interestingly to Lulu (which also, of course, has things to say about the relationship between the animal and the human); David Pountney’s programme essay sees both operas as unconscious expressions “of male angst at the implicitly perceived rising tide of female liberation” (one’s only objection to such a view might be that it runs the risk of ‘localising’ the operas’ meanings too tightly in historical terms – perhaps more of a problem where Vixen is concerned rather than in the case of Lulu.

Pountney and revival director Elaine Tyler-Hall were generally well served by their singers (and dancers). Sophie Bevan was an energetic Vixen whose growth to ‘maturity’ was plausibly and touchingly delineated. She and the excellent Sarah Castle, in fine voice as the Fox, presented an image of courtship that had more than a little of the parodically human ‘about’ it, but was free of the hang-ups and inhibitions of, for example, the Schoolmaster and the Parson, while the seeming ease and abundance (the vixen can’t remember how many children she has) with which they became parents is very different from the Forester’s difficult marriage. As the Forester, Jonathan Summers was a convincing and intelligent presence, at his very best in reminiscing about his own youth; there were moments of vocal unease, however, and Summers couldn’t quite do justice to the recognitions the Forester comes to in the last scene of the opera . Pountney’s programme essay rightly describes this as an “ecstatic epiphany”, but it didn’t have very much of the ecstatic or epiphanic about it in the rather sober and un-radiant delivery of Summers. The importance of the Forester’s insights here, of the step beyond self-pity and excessive focus on the self and into impersonal wisdom, needs greater emphasis if the opera’s thematic shape is to be fully clear.

Elsewhere there were many splendid cameo performances. Julian Boyce’s domestic Dog was a lumpish contrast to the Vixen’s threatening vivacity and independence of spirit, while Alan Oke was a melancholy Schoolmaster congenitally unable to seize life’s opportunities and Richard Angas’s priest convincingly communicated pleasurable memories of his youthful lapses. There was a fine comic routine from a chorus line of farmyard hens and David Stout was a strong presence as Haraŝta the Poacher, the only human being to take decisive action, to live and act fully in the present, acquiring a wife and shooting the vixen. Singers and dancers alike were well supported by the relishing of Janáĉek’s gorgeously evocative orchestral writing by Lothat Koenigs and the orchestra of WNO. Naomi Tadevossian danced very expressively in her interpretation of the vixen’s dream of maturity and liberation in Act I, Scene II (a scene which has some parallels, thematically, with the Forester’s dream in the final scene of the work). The many children who played the roles of assorted animals (especially the foxcubs) were delightful and, in a sense an implicit embodiment of Janáĉek’s meaning.

The average life-span of a fox in the wild is probably no more than three years. This theatrical Vixen has much exceeded that and looks to have many more good years of life ahead of it.

Glyn Pursglove