Barrie Kosky’s life-affirming Cunning Little Vixen at the Staatsoper in Munich

GermanyGermany Janáček, The Cunning Little Vixen: Soloists, Chorus, Children’s chorus and Orchestra of the Bayerische Staatsoper / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (conductor). Nationaltheater, Munich, 30.1.2022. (ALL)

Elena Tsallagova (l, Sharp-Ears) and Angela Brower (r, Gold-Spur) © Wilfried Hösl

Director – Barrie Kosky
Set design – Michael Levin
Costume design – Victoria Behr
Lighting – Frank Evin
Chorus – Stellario Fagone
Dramaturgy – Katja Leclerc

Sharp-Ears, the Vixen – Elena Tsallagova
The Forester – Wolfgang Koch
Gold-Spur, the Fox – Angela Brower
The Forester’s Wife / The Owl – Lindsay Ammann
The Schoolmaster / The Mosquito, – Jonas Hacker
The Shepherd / The Badger – Martin Snell
Harashta – Milan Sijanov
Pasek – Caspar Singh
Ms. Pasek / The jay – Mirjam Mesak
The Dog / The Woodpecker – Yajie Zhang
The Cockerel – Andres Agudelo
The Hen – Eliza Boom
The Young Foxes, Frantík, Pepík, The Cricket, The Frog – Soloists of the Children’s chorus of the Bayerische Staatsoper

When was the last time the Bayerische Staatsoper had a premiere where the audience applauded in awe without any discordant boos? Well, this was what the team received that gave us this new production of The Cunning Little Vixen on the opening night.

The first images of this production are of a funeral: black scenery, dark silhouettes, heavy movement. Slowly the characters withdraw one by one, the silver curtain that represents the forest setting settles, the Forester turns towards the audience and Janáček’s powerful music starts. The animals emerge from the grave where earth has just been poured. How can we not think back to this sentence from Genesis 2:7: ‘then Adonai, God, formed a person from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, so that he became a living being’, but this time applying also to animals.

There is no pantheistic conception in Barrie Kosky’s production, no green colours, no fake trees. The singers who play the various animals are just dressed in colourful outfits and not in animal costumes, contrasting with the black clothes of their human counterparts. Only the farmyard passage gives rise to a certain playful (and somewhat violent) fantasy, followed by an hilarious moment when a slightly lost extra dressed as an egg enters, a cousin of the wacky tap dancers in Kosky’s staging of Shostakovich’s Nose at Covent Garden.

Some things in the opera suffered a little from this conception. The animals, such as the Badger which the Vixen abuses, lacked characterisation. The trio of the Gamekeeper, Schoolmaster and Pastor lacked projection, the characters emerging halfway across the stage and being overwhelmed by the set. But these are small details, the love scene between Fox and Vixen was lyrical, the death of the Vixen caught the right spirit of the unsentimental music and the final scene was full of grandeur. These are pages of rare beauty from Janáček.

Wolfgang Koch (Forester) © Wilfried Hösl

The musical level was particularly high. As is often the case in Munich, the smaller roles were wonderfully cast. Elena Tsallagova as the Vixen, who is familiar with the role, was particularly eloquent, finding drama and strength. Her duet with Angela Brower’s Fox was a highlight. In great form, Wolfgang Koch has in the Forester a role that very much shows him at his best, alternating authority, gentleness and poetry. (Here is a forester who has probably made a few pairs of shoes in a particularly well-known Wagner opera and gained a certain wisdom.)

The orchestra makes or breaks every Janáček opera and here we were on a winner. From the very first notes, the orchestra of the Bayerische Staatsoper impressed with its richness of its sound and colour. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s reading was masterly and authoritative and one could only imagine the quality of the work forged during the rehearsals. The harmony between the pit and the stage was remarkable, though there was some understandable nervousness at the beginning, after all, the Lithuanian conductor was making her Munich debut. However, from the love duet onwards, there was instrumental quality, concentration and expression aplenty.

It will be possible to see this opera until mid-February and again in July during the Munich Opera Festival. The borders are reopening and we could hear some different accents in the audience. It was a superb evening which once again confirms the high standard of this opera house. It is definitely worth a visit to Munich just to see this Cunning Little Vixen.

Antoine Lévy-Leboyer

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