Impressive Young Singers Vie with Foxing Visuals in Janáček’s Opera

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Janáček, The Cunning Little Vixen: Soloists, Orchestrof Byre Opera / Michael Downes (conductor), Byre Theatre, St Andrews, 17.6.2017. (SRT)

Cast included:

Vixen Bytrouska – Catherine Hooper
Fox – Caitlin McDonnell
Young Vixen – Sasha MacAulay
Forester – Niall Kennedy
Forester’s Wife – Alice Gold
Schoolmaster – Andrew Mundy
Harasta – Teddy Day
Priest – Peter Sutton
Pasek – James Green
Mrs Paskova – Susannah McClanahan
Pepik – Ben Clark
Frantik – Oliver Marshall


Director – PJ Harris
Set and Lighting Designer – Victor Labarthe d’Arnoux
Costume Designer – Antonin Boyot-Gellibert

Byre Opera is effectively an outlet for the music department of St Andrews University. It’s run by Michael Downes, who’s the university’s director of music, and once a year he gets together a cast, comprised mostly of university students, to mount a pretty ambitious staging of a full opera.

I take my hat off to any such company that manages to run the hazardous gauntlet of fully staging a complete opera, especially one as tricky as The Cunning Little Vixen.  It often brings out the best in talented amateurs like this, however. In fact, one of the best student productions I’ve seen was a production by Durham University of Ravel’s equally impossible L’Enfant et les Sortilèges.

So I wish director PJ Harris had let the piece speak for itself. He’s already an established director, working across Europe and currently on the staff of Opera North, Glyndebourne and Garsington; which makes me a little suspicious that he was trying to be a bit too clever in his realisation of The Cunning Little Vixen. He tries to centre the piece on the character of the Forester, and his journey from staid officiousness to a final liberated embrace of nature. Consequently, he sets the whole first half in the Forester’s office, with paper walls which are torn down as the act progresses, presumably as a symbol of nature breaking in on the Forester’s reserve. That’s all very well, but it meant that we lost the critical sense of the outdoors that runs through the opera’s veins. Only really in the second half did we get a sense of space and the natural world, which feels like a squandered opportunity. After all, that’s what the piece is about, and Janacek’s magical opening, where nature breathes and rustles through every semiquaver, loses much of its impact when you’re looking at the interior of a dull office.

That led to some other clumsy visual decisions, too, both of which came from the more well-established artists who should have known better. Antonin Boyot-Gellibert’s costumes were very variable. The male fox was a proper Flash Harry, which suited him down to the ground, and the children made convincing frogs, grasshoppers and crickets. Sharpears herself, however, was dressed in a fairly mediocre slip without much to point up her foxiness. The midge and mosquito looked like they’d escaped from an S&M party gone wrong, and the birds in the wedding scene wore oversized headdresses that made them look like extras from Aida. Likewise, professional choreographer Liz Ranken didn’t have many ideas of what to do with the Dragonflies, and their too frequent appearances meant I wearied of them quickly.

Musically, things were a lot more promising. Conductor Michael Downes preferred slow tempi which mostly allowed the score to breathe, but that made for a damagingly ponderous love scene, and the lovely music of the Vixen’s death seemed to wallow. However, the orchestra sounded fresh, playing Jonathan Dove’s arrangement of the score for only sixteen players and bringing out surprising colours as they did so.

The real treats came from the newcomers, with some impressive young singers, led by a sweet, fresh-voiced Vixen from Catherine Hooper. The balance of the theatre sometimes mitigated against hearing her diction, but she was well contrasted with the more breathy Fox of Caitlin McDonnell. Andrew Mundy and Peter Sutton made a characterful Schoolmaster and Priest, and I really liked the tenor of Teddy Day’s Harašta, bringing a touch of bel canto to what can be a fairly ungrateful part. Best of the lot, however, was a remarkably mature Forester from baritone Niall Kennedy. His projection, diction and vocal colour were all top notch, and he had a little touch of star quality that made him stand out head and shoulders over the others. His degree was in Italian, but his biography suggests he takes his singing seriously. He should, and I’ll watch out for his name in future.

The Cunning Little Vixen transfers to The Maltings Theatre, Berwick Upon Tweed this weekend (Sat 24 & Sunday 25 June).

Simon Thompson

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