United Kingdom Janáček, The Cunning Little Vixen – Opera in three acts: Soloists, Garsington Opera Orchestra & Chorus / Garry Walker (conductor), Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 22.6.2014 (CR)
Sung in Czech with English surtitles
Forester, Grant Doyle
Forester’s wife, Lucy Schaufer
Schoolmaster, Timothy Robinson
Priest, Henry Waddington
Harašta, Joshua Bloom
Pásek, innkeeper, Aaron Cawley
Pásek’s wife, Helen Anne Gregory
Pepík, William Gardner
Frantík, Theo Lally
Young Vixen, Alexandra Persinaru
Vixen Bystrouška, Claire Booth
Fox, Victoria Simmonds
Cricket, Isaac Flanagan
Grasshopper, Sophie Thomson
Frog, Gabriel Kuti
Mosquito, Richard Dowling
Lapák, a dog, Anna Harvey
Cock, Alice Rose Privett
Chocholka, a hen, Katherine Crompton
Badger, Bragi Jónsson
Woodpecker, Marta Fontanals-Simmons
Owl, Grace Durham
Jay, Elizabeth Karani
Hare, Buster Dickinson
Fox cubs, Emily Speed, Tanya Jayakar, Olivia O’Sullivan, Lulu Kwan, Theo Flanagan, Jeremie de Rijk, Sebastian Exall, Joshua Kenney
Vixen dancer, Chiara Vinci
Forester dancer, Jamie Higgins
Director, Daniel Slater
Designer, Robert Innes Hopkins
Lighting Designer, Tim Mascall
Choreographer, Maxine Braham
Superficially, Janáček’s seventh opera The Cunning Little Vixen might appear to be little more than an Aesopian fable concocted for the entertainment of youngsters, with its cast largely populated by animals and its succinct tableaux based upon a serialised illustrated novel. Garsington’s new production by Daniel Slater, however, spares few blushes in its fairly explicit realisation of the work’s exploration of the human reproductive urge and bodily functions generally. Hence the Forester’s dog Lapák is seen pleasuring himself after making advances to the Vixen, the latter has her revenge on the Cockerel not by killing him directly, but by tearing off his genitals, and the Vixen’s assistants drive Badger from his home by urinating over him.
In this production it is emphatically not the case that animals are anthropomorphised, but rather that the animalian instincts in man are dramatised, as evidenced in the fact that the characters’ costumes are not complete creaturely outfits but mostly comprise only a few features of the animals they are meant to represent. Even so, there is nothing edifying about the way in which the characters advance their desires, whether that is in the reproductive act, their assertion of proprietorial rights over land in the case of uprooting Badger, or in the Forester’s first act of oppression in trapping the young Vixen – the original sin from which springs the cycle of exploitation and anti-social behaviour to which the opera bears witness.
Yet this does not preclude a vision of redemption. At two telling moments, Chiara Vinci and Jamie Higgins appear as the alter egos of the Vixen and the Forester, to perform dance routines which are co-operatively and non-coercively erotic. First they enact the Forester’s dream in Act One, and later provide the visual accompaniment to the passage of time during the night which Vixen and Fox spend together, suggesting that the latter liaison is simply one of convenience, enabling the pair to reproduce themselves in a numerous brood of young cubs.
If this sounds crude or gratuitous, Slater’s production surely does not mean it to be unduly so, and to dismiss it as such would fail to grasp Janáček’s boldness in representing the psychological and physiological urgings of human nature so immediately, despite its symbolism – an achievement which could only come after Sigmund Freud had promulgated his theories.
The cast was consistently excellent. Where the delivery of the text can easily sound forced or stilted, here it was fluent and urgent. Despite the unsympathetic intentions of the Forester, Grant Doyle still brought a certain nobility to the role, while Timothy Robinson’s desperate yearning as the Schoolmaster for his beloved Terynka evinced compassion, though not without some humour. The more sceptical and worldly-wise outlook of the Priest was clearly demonstrated in Henry Waddington’s performance. As the Vixen, Claire Booth was certainly a force to be reckoned with, even before her eyes were opened more widely to the ways of the world by the Fox’s overtures to her. These were by no means manipulative or opportunistic in Victoria Simmonds’s acting of the part, subtly domineering rather than brutally so.
Among the various other roles, Anna Harvey caught the mischievous character of Lapák, while Lucy Schaufer and Helen Anne Gregory made suitable frumps of the wives of the Forester and Pásek the innkeeper respectively. Alice Rose Privett’s Cockerel was at least as sly as either the Vixen or the Fox. Many characters came and went over the opera’s short course of less than two hours, but Daniel Slater’s direction and Maxine Braham’s choreography ensured that it remained coherent and well-paced, escalating to a visual climax in the party following the marriage of the Vixen and the Fox.
In building up its web of motivic cells, the orchestral support under Garry Walker twitched throughout much of the performance with a nervous energy and momentum which suggested the restless stirrings and movements of the animals depicted. Initially the instrumental sounds were unfocussed, for instance in the strings’ flickering chains of ascending or descending fourths. But such sonorities soon became better balanced, instilling the music with motoric drive, and often evoking a more robust version of the soundworld of Debussy, an influence often identified in relation to this score, whether in those shimmering textures (particularly during the brief, genuinely romantic moments of the drama), the close imitation of speech patterns in the setting of the text like Pelleas et Mélisande, or the mysterious, elusive quality of the choral parts redolent of Nocturnes for instance. The production is not for the prudish then, but both action and music come together in admirable alignment with Janáček’s intentions, expressed at the time he was grappling with his feelings for Kamila Stösslová.