Glyndebourne Captures Earthiness of The Cunning Little Vixen

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Janáček, The Cunning Little Vixen: Soloists, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Glyndebourne Chorus / Jakub Hrůša (conductor). Glyndebourne, 25.6.2016. (RB)

The Cunning Little Vixen (c) Richard Hubert Smith

Janáček, The Cunning Little Vixen

Vixen Sharp Ears: Elena Tsallagova
Forester: Christopher Purves
Fox: Alžběta Poláčková
Badger/Priest: Alexander Vassiliev
Mosquito/Schoolmaster: Colin Judson
Forester’s Wife/Owl: Sarah Pring
Dog: Marta Fontanals-Simmons
Harašta: Alexandre Duhamel

Director: Melly Still
Set Designer: Tom Pye
Costume Designer: Dinah Collin
Choreographer: Mike Ashcroft
Lighting Designer: Paule Constable

This year’s Glyndebourne Festival production of The Cunning Little Vixen is a revival of Melly Still’s 2012 production. There have been a number of developments since the earlier production including tweaks to costumes, sets and choreography and the long interval now takes place between the second and third Acts. Glyndebourne, with its manicured gardens and picnics round the lake, provided a perfect setting for this opera which is essentially a celebration of the natural world.

Janáček composed his opera between 1921-23 having adapted his libretto from a daily comic which was first published in the Brno newspaper Lidové noviny. The opera incorporates Moravian folk music together with ballet numbers, mime and orchestral interludes. It has a fairy tale quality but it is also firmly rooted in the forests of Moravia.

In the opera is a forester captures a young vixen and takes her home as a pet. The emboldened vixen becomes increasingly rebellious and manages to escape. In the forest the vixen meets a young male fox and the two become mutually smitten and decide to marry and have a family. The vixen uses her cunning to escape a number of traps but is shot by the poacher, Harašta. At the end of the opera the forester returns to the spot where he first met the vixen and reflects on the wonderful cycle of nature. There are a number of themes running through the opera including the rejection of conventional social mores and the celebration of freedom and desire; the contrast between the human world with its consciousness of mortality, the passing of time and the yearning for younger days and the animal world which rejoices in the here and now; and the endless cycle of decay and renewal which so profoundly defines the natural world and mankind’s alienation from that world and desire to belong to it. At the time of the opera’s composition, Janáček was hopelessly in love with a much younger married woman called Kamila Stösslová who inspired some of the characters in the opera although what her connection is to the characters is still a matter for debate.

Melly’s Still’s production contrasts the monochrome world of humans with the technicolour world of the forest. In the programme notes Still points out that the human world of the period is revealed to us in black and white photographs while the colourful animal world is not constrained by time. Tom Pye’s cartoonish set is dominated by a huge gnarled tree which stands majestically in front of a steep hillside. A winding cratered pathway was carved into the hill and, seen from a different perspective and lighting, doubled as a fox burrow. There was a profusion of colour: the background was a mixture of blues and greens while pink flowers sprouted from the tree. Dinah Collin’s animal costumes were striking and imaginative: the vixen for example was depicted as a rock hippy chick complete with red dreadlocks. The foxes carried knives (to represent their jaws) and bushy tales which acted as extensions to their limbs while the mosquito carried a syringe, the dragonflies wafted around the stage carrying fans and the frog carried his own protruding eyes. At various points in the opera, we saw various creatures sliding or abseiling down the hillside while other creatures appeared magically from holes in the stage before vanishing again.

The production did an excellent job capturing the earthiness of Janáček’s work: in the first Act we saw a headless chicken scurrying across the stage and at one point the Vixen squats over the badger and pisses on him. While the natural world is rich and vibrant these creatures are unselfconscious and red blood runs in their veins. In contrast when the human dwellings come into view the colour drains from the set and the characters are seen grappling with unresolved dilemmas.

Elena Tsallagova was perfect in the role of Vixen sharp eyes bringing out the rebelliousness and exuberance of the character. She brought a rich vibrant tone to the difficult vocal part and the top notes were dispatched with perfect intonation and technical assurance. Her love duet with Alžběta Poláčková’s Fox was one of the highlights of the opera with both singers bringing a golden radiance to the composer’s enchanting vocal lines. Christopher Purves’ brought a humanity to curmudgeonly Forester depicting him as both world weary and tender. He dispatched the vocal part with power and authority producing a rounded, well focused sound and excellent diction. The rest of the cast all gave first rate performances but I was particularly impressed with Colin Judson’s schoolmaster (made up to look like the elderly composer), Sarah Pring who doubled as the rustic Forester’s wife while bringing humour to the role of the Owl, and Alexandre Duhamel who did a fine job with Harašta’s aria in Act 3.

Conductor Jakub Hrůša is from Brno and he clearly has Janáček’s music with its distinctive Moravian idiom in his bones. The wildlife and woodland scenes which are such an integral part of the music were depicted in an enchanting way although the dangers which lurk in the forest were never far away. The LPO did a superb job conjuring up some of the composer’s extraordinary textures and musical effects often playing in very high registers and with irregular rhythms. Much of the playing had a rawness and immediacy which I really liked. Janáček uses a very large orchestra and Hrůša and the LPO are to be congratulated for maintaining an excellent balance of sound with the singers throughout. The Glyndebourne Chorus were also on top form in the euphoric final scene of Act 2 which they delivered in a highly energetic way.

Overall, this was a first rate production from Glyndebourne and it is well worth seeing if you missed it last time round.

Robert Beattie   

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