United Kingdom Janáĉek, The Cunning Little Vixen (sung in Czech): Soloists, Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Tomáš Hanus (conductor). Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 5.10.2019. (GPu)
Director – David Pountney
Associate Director & Choreographer – Elaine Tyler-Hall
Original Choreographer – Stuart Hopps
Designer – Maria Bjørnson
Lighting designer – Nick Chelton
Vixen – Aoife Miskelly
Fox – Lucia Cervoni
Forester – Claudio Otelli
Forester’s Wife – Kezia Bienek
Cockerel – Michael Clifton-Thompson
Chief Hen – Meriel Andrew
Parson – Wojtek Gierlach
Schoolmaster – Peter Van Hulle
Poacher (Harašta) – David Stout
Innkeeper – Martin Lloyd
Innkeeper’s Wife – Sarah Pope
Dog – Helen Greenaway
Badger – Laurence Cole
Mosquito – Joseph Doody
Jay – Sian Meinir
Owl – Paula Greenwood
Woodpecker – Hanna Liisa Kirchin
Dancers and Children
Revivals of productions can often feel somewhat tired, but this performance could not have felt fresher or more full of life. David Pountney’s production of The Cunning Little Vixen (one of a pioneering series of productions which did much to establish Janáĉek’s operas in the U.K.) was first seen as long ago as November 1980. It passes – with flying colours – the two important tests for a production of this opera. First, that its treatment of the animals should avoid too much Disneyfication, so that they are not excessively sentimentalised; secondly, it should realize, and find ways of articulating, the fact that that the opera (while no Aesopian fable with a simple moral at its close) deals with some major issues, such as the consciousness of time and its passing, whether that of animal or human and the place of the individual’s life and death in the larger cycle of time (themes partly embodied in the passing of the cycle of seasons in the opera).
Since its premiere in 1980 (as a co-production by WNO and Scottish Opera), this production has been revived several times. ‘Revival’ actually seems like the wrong word to use of this most recent performance. There were a good many details here that I did not remember from when I had seen it before. Initially I put this down to the fallibility of my memory, until I heard several other people (including at least one other reviewer) say the same thing. Given that Sir David Pountney was back in Cardiff for some weeks ahead of this ‘revival’, I suspect that his obvious love of the work led him to incorporate new ideas, to undertake a degree of re-imagining. During the interval I bumped into a former student of mine – a member of a seminar course on Shakespeare’s comedies at Swansea University a few years ago – when I observed that I hadn’t ever seen him at the opera before, he told me that he was there for the first time, because his wife very much wanted to see Vixen; ‘Is opera always so marvellously theatrical?’ he asked me, to which I had to admit that it wasn’t, only at its very best. ‘It’s a lot like Shakespearean comedy isn’t it?’ he added – a question left unanswered as the bell went for the second half.
The triumphant theatrical vigour of this production owes more than a little to the beautiful set by the late Maria Bjørnson, magnificently lit by Nick Chelton (his lighting realised on this occasion by Ian Jones), full of shades and tints, and flexible enough to become snow-covered or spring-like without disrupting the fluidity of Janáĉek’s narrative, and with plenty of space for the large cast of ‘animals’ to fill with their busy action, while opening to reveal a small space in which the human characters act out most of their lives, whether in the Forester’s house or the local inn.
Janáĉek’s libretto, famously derived from the stories of Rudolf Tĕsnohlidek, themselves based on drawings by Stanislav Lolek, has a unity of vision which, in the composer’s own words, counterpoints ‘the forest and the sadness of old age’. The creatures of the forest – insects, birds and mammals – live their lives in a continuous ‘simple present’, while for the humans, most of them old, the ‘present’ is always complicated by the past and the future, by memories and regrets, hopes and fears. We see pretty well the whole of the Vixen’s life, from her youth, through her ‘imprisonment’ by the Forester and her subsequent escape, through her ‘marriage’ (a wonderfully crafted scene – at the same time extraordinarily beautiful and as richly nonsensical as Edward Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’), through motherhood (her ‘husband’ asks her ‘How many cubs have we got now?’ – ‘I don’t remember’, she replies), to her death, shot by the Poacher. Her life occupies a mere fraction of the length of human lives, but her ‘immortality’ is assured by the continuation of the species. The largely morose and disillusioned lives of figures such as the Schoolmaster and the Parson contain nothing of the joy of her life. Yet, of course, creatures such as the Dragonfly and the Cricket have even shorter lives. So do frogs – in the opening scene a frog jumps on the nose of the dozing Forester, who calls it a ‘cold beast’. In a parallel moment in the closing scene of the opera the Forester, as he falls asleep (or is he dying?) unintentionally grabs hold of a frog and exclaims ‘You cold beast’. The Forester assumes it to be the same frog, but this frog explains ‘I’m not the one you think, … that was my grandfather’, the perfect encapsulation of how human and animal lives are lived at different speeds and, therefore, with different senses of time.
In Janáĉek’s libretto, the human and animal worlds are not, however, simple opposites. The animal world is far from just ‘paradisally innocent’ or ‘sweet’. Janáĉek is fully aware that, as Tennyson famously put it, Nature is ‘red in tooth and claw/With ravine”. The Vixen’s body count – made up of hens and a hare – is evidence of that. Nor are the animals entirely without some of the complexities of human existence, even if their presence often seems a parodic comment on the human world – as, for example, when the Vixen is uncomfortable at the prospect of premarital sex with her ‘intended’. Even here, much of the opera’s significance resides in the comparisons between human society and the natural world which the audience is constantly asked to make.
In adopting the famous distinction made by E.M. Forster in his book Aspects of the Novel (1927), between ‘flat’ and ‘rounded’ characters – the former being one-dimensional and often near to caricature, the latter characters who grow and can sometimes surprise us, I think it is fair to say that only the Vixen and the Forester are fully ‘rounded’ characters, though one might argue that the Schoolmaster and the Parson, and perhaps the Fox (whose name he tells us, is Goldskin) possess at least what one might call a potential for rotundity. As the Vixen, Aoife Miskelly was a constantly vivacious presence – making of the vixen one of opera’s feistiest females – a genuine sister to Carmen and Lulu – very much an independent ‘woman’ and an advocate of female liberation (to an unlikely, and uncomprehending, audience of hens!). Though fiercely energetic throughout, Miskelly’s Vixen was also capable of moments of tenderness, even if the way she challenged and defied masculine figures of power like the Forester or the Badger, raising her skirt to leave the latter with the memory of ‘something feminine’ and forcing him out of his sett, was more characteristic. The relevance of these attitudes was surely as clear to the opera’s original audience as it is to an audience of our own time (female suffrage was a hot topic of discussion – and legislation – in the Czechoslovakia of the 1920s).
The Forester who, from the very beginning of the opera seems a somewhat ambiguous character, perhaps more at home in the natural world than in human company, develops through the events of the narrative, becoming, by its end, a figure who comes close to the tragic hero’s experience of anagnorisis, that experience which reveals a truth to which the hero had hitherto been blind and/or deaf. The Forester’s anagnorisis comes, however, not in a violent experience of loss (as it generally does for Greek or Shakespearian heroes), but in sleep and dream in the natural world.
In the opening scene of the opera, the Forester dozes in the forest with the animals, insects and birds around him. For someone like me, having taught courses on medieval dream poetry, this is reminiscent of the way a lot of such poems begin, with the ‘poet’ falling asleep, with what follows being the content of the poet’s dream. (This wouldn’t be an absurd interpretation of Janáĉek’s opera). At least it is certainly by design (as part of the cyclic nature of the work), rather than accident that Janáĉek closes the opera with an exactly parallel scene, in which, in the process of falling asleep, the Forester tells us what he has learned from life (and perhaps from his ‘dream’?). His mind moves, in a very well-written scene, across the past, the present and the future. The whole complex ‘sung monologue’ was delivered magnificently by the Austrian bass-baritone Claudio Otelli, whose interpretation of the Forester was absolutely convincing throughout.
For all the marvellous theatricality of the production and its design, all the inventive stagecraft, this Cunning Little Vixen would have been infinitely poorer without the contributions of Aoife Miskelly and Claudio Otelli. The ‘flatter’ characters though, of course they offer less scope for individualisation or emotional/psychological depth, were well interpreted, notably by Peter Van Hulle, as the Schoolmaster, with a quietly moving sense of melancholic loneliness, Wojtek Gierlach, as the Parson, unsure, without arrogance, that he belonged with such as the Forester and the Schoolmaster, and David Stout as an attractively transgressive Poacher, while Lucia Cervoni gave a nicely detailed performance as the Vixen’s husband. The abundance of wild creatures, many of them acted by children (very well) were all utterly charming (but never allowed to be sentimental). The dancers, especially Stefanos Dimoulas as the Dragonfly and Lucy Burns as the Spirit of the Vixen, performed to a very high standard. How much their movement owed to the original choreographer Stuart Hopps and how much to Elaine Tyler-Hall, I don’t know.
The orchestral contribution, under the baton of Tomáš Hanus – born and brought up in Janáĉek’s adopted home city of Brno – was perfectly idiomatic and at all times sensitive to the needs of both singers and onstage action. Much of the orchestra’s work was strikingly beautiful, whether in the evocation of place and time in the opening moments of the opera, or in details such as the musical representation of the flies annoying the Forester in the last scene.
This was a quite outstanding performance/production, one of those inevitably rare evenings when every one of opera’s many media and means – orchestra, singers, dancers, text, set and lighting, to name but a few – were perfectly integrated into a single unity. From the comic to the poignant there wasn’t a single ‘false’ touch. A fortunate (and audibly appreciative) audience was left in no doubt either of Janáĉek’s love of the animals and the birds (whose songs he collected and notated) or of his sympathetic understanding of human weakness, especially in the old. For all the The Cunning Little Vixen’s vitality, it is worth remembering that Janáĉek was 70 when the opera was completed and premiered in 1924 and died just four years later.