Phantasmagoria as Man is pitted against Nature in ENO’s new The Cunning Little Vixen

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Janáček, The Cunning Little Vixen (Přiíhody lišky Bystroušky): Soloists, Children’s Chorus, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / Martyn Brabbins (conductor). London Coliseum, 22.2.2022. (CC)

English National Opera’s The Cunning Little Vixen © Clive Barda

Director – Jamie Manton
Designer – Tom Scutt
Lighting designer – Lucy Carter
Movement director – Jenny Ogilvie
English translation – Robert T Jones & Yveta Synek Graff

Cast included:
Forester – Lester Lynch
Forester’s Wife / Owl – Madeleine Shaw
Vixen – Sally Matthews
Fox – Pumeza Matshikiza
Schoolmaster / Mosquito – Alan Oke
Priest / Badger – Clive Bayley
Harašta – Ossian Huskinson
Innkeeper / Cock – John Findon
Innkeeper’s Wife / Hen – Gweneth Ann Rand
Pepik / Woodpecker – Alexandra Oomens
Dragonfly – Joy Constantinides
Frog – Robert Berry-Roe
Frantík / Jay – Ffion Edwards
Dog – Claire Barnett-Jones

Last Summer, Opera Holland Park presented a Cunning Little Vixen (also sung in English) that was both utterly delightful, true to the spirit of the piece, and which also was able to bring in ethical green ideas through the concept of recycling. Jennifer France was an exceptional Vixen (review click here). Here we have a very different take by Jamie Manton, offering his first main stage production.

English National Opera’s history with Vixen goes back a long while – the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company, as the company was then known, gave the first English language performance in 1961. There have been five staging since: 1998, 1991, 1995, 1996 and 2001. The difference between the OHP staging – remember, nicely cradled within the beautiful nature setting of Holland Park itself, and this one is as chalk and cheese. In Manton’s hands, we find ourselves in a huge logging factory, with cut tree trunks prominent. Man versus Nature, from the beginning. A scroll descends and begins with an image of birth, moving later to full suns until eventually it falls, symbolising the end of a cycle (of life?). Just as telling – and somewhat discomforting – is the view the audience has of the sides of the stage, bare, highlighting what we see on the stage itself is indeed a tale – but how empty is it? And it reminds us that we are watching a fiction, that somehow that, in the corner of our eye, prevents full immersion in the story.

Claire Barnett-Jones (Dog), John Findon (Cock) and Sally Matthews (Vixen) © Clive Barda

Here, phantasmagoria meets the cute meets realism. So, Dog (Claire Barnett-Jones) is a weird puff ball, a distended canine amoeba with fur, tending more towards dark fairy-tale; we have toadstools as part of the array of mobile ‘creatures’. Man pitted against Nature, ostensibly the Master – but Nature’s cycles, as we know, are infinite, and Nature has infinite patience, and that fall of the scroll at the end reminds us that the end of a cycle has a finality all of its own. Lucy Carter’s lighting is decidedly on the bright side: a spotlit equivalent of putting the drama under a microscope, and in the process leaving little scope for performer error.

Some of the characters are asked to sing in what looks like remarkably uncomfortable positions perched on or draped over piles of logs – all credit to the seasoned Clive Bayley and Alan Oke (Priest and Schoolmaster respectively) for negotiating this with, if not ease, at least delivering the goods. Vixen requires a large cast, all of whom should be of exceptional level, but it also requires principal singers of vast talent. Good to have Sally Matthews in the title role, her voice an ideal contrast to Pumeza Matshikiza’s darker soprano (the part is for soprano or high mezzo). Matshikiza impressed in a DG streamed recital (reviewed by me here, where you can read more about her background). Together, they made an enchanting pair, both visually and vocally; this was a notable ENO debut for Matshikiza.

Matthews’s voice negotiates Janáček’s lines well and holds an appealing, bright lustre. Her Forester, Lester Lynch, is dramatically characterful and, in the opera’s final pages, gave his all; as an audience, we resonated with him and his story, told this way, engages.

The other standout assumption is that of Ossian Huskinson’s Harašta (the poacher), strong, almost elemental, as if to remind us that humans, like animals, have an emotional, reactive side that is most prevalent in youth.

The orchestra also gave their all throughout – the ENO band clearly likes Martyn Brabbins, who finds much modernism in Janáček’s score. Those treacherously high violin lines are managed well (just the occasional less-good moment on this particular night); rhythms are finely drawn throughout. Harmonic brightenings and arrivals could veer towards the overwhelming: Brabbins has the breadth of Janáček’s invention.

If you are going to Vixen for pure enchantment, this production is not for you. Janáček’s music does indeed work on many layers simultaneously, and this production plays with that. In the final analysis, though, it’s that balance which is so important, between the wisdom of fairy-tale and an imported realism. It feels a little as if the axe has swung too much the wrong way.

Ironically, Nature herself had a say in when this run started – the planned performance on Saturday was cancelled because of the weather (Storm Eunice). It is good to have it underway, and whatever one thinks of the production, there is a feast of good singing here. Diction is not always precise, but the spirit remains. There are some fine contributions here, including from the many schoolchildren (taken from local schools) – but the whole is sadly not greater than the sum of its parts.

Colin Clarke

Leave a Comment