Opera North’s Vixen has stood the test of time and is a genuine treat for eyes and ears

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Janáček, The Cunning Little Vixen: Soloists, Orchestra of Opera North / Andrew Gourley (conductor). The Lowry Theatre, Salford. 7.3.2023. (MC)

Opera North’s The Cunning Little Vixen © Tristram Kenton

Sir David Pountney’s much admired staging of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen was first given in 1980 for Scottish Opera. I notice that Opera North first staged Pountney’s Vixen in 1984. I didn’t attend Pountney’s original staging so I am not sure just how much modification has been undertaken by Elaine Tyler-Hall the revival director. Tyler-Hall commenced her career as a dancer and likely the choreography, which is both outstanding and considerable, has been refreshed.

Designed by the late Maria Björnson the set and costumes remain a visual treat of vivid colour. Highly inventive and fairy-tale like is the set of a hilly forest glade or grassy knoll that separates in the middle to display at turns the Vixen’s underground den for raising her fox cubs, a tavern and also the Forester’s home. I love the way the various animals came alive and how their individual personalities were imagined, including those of the humans too.

This is a splendidly cast production by Opera North and there isn’t a weak link. Standing out from the handful of major roles was bass-baritone James Rutherford as the Forester. With his indubitable stage presence and assurance Rutherford sang magnificently throughout. Conspicuous too was soprano Elin Pritchard such an engaging bundle of energy who lit up the role of Vixen Sharp-Ears who comes across as representative of womanliness and sexual desire. In addition, Paul Nilon as the Schoolmaster and Henry Waddington as the Parson both gave convincing displays, and the audience clearly relished the amusing antics of the cock and hens.

In view of major concern for environmental threats to the planet including climate change, global warming, acid rain, air pollution, depletion of natural resources and deforestation the message I take from this staging of Vixen is the earth’s capacity for regeneration and its ability to adapt.

From his days as assistant conductor to Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra, Andrew Gourley is a conductor who has always impressed me. Vixen marks Gourley’s Opera North debut production and the Orchestra of Opera North performed with outstanding sweep and judicious tempi producing orchestral playing almost as colourful as the set and costumes. Janáček’s score requires numerous solos, and I admired the adept contributions from the section principals. Importantly the often-boisterous volume of the orchestra never drowned out the singers who were singing in English. The Vixen text is Pountney’s own translation and on occasions his choice of words made me smile.

This successful Opera North revival demonstrates that Pountney’s Vixen has clearly stood the test of time and is a genuine treat for the eyes and ears. Though there are some sorrowful, even distressing episodes overall it is one of Janáček’s happiest works. I experience this Vixen as an often amusing and enchanting fairy-tale opera, and I can see why school matinee performances have been arranged.

Michael Cookson

Director – Sir David Pountney
Revival Director – Elaine Tyler-Hall
Associate Director and Choreography – Elaine Tyler-Hall
Set and Costume design – Maria Björnson
Lighting designer – Nick Chelton

Vixen Sharp-Ears – Elin Pritchard
Fox – Heather Lowe
Forester – James Rutherford
Schoolmaster – Paul Nilon
Parson – Henry Waddington
Poacher – Callum Thorpe
Dragonfly – Stefanos Dimoulas
Badger – Paul Gibson
Dog – James Davies
Forester’s Wife – Hazel Croft
Spirit of the Vixen – Lucy Burns
Innkeeper – Stuart Laing
Innkeeper’s Wife – Claire Pascoe
Mosquito – Kamil Bien
Cockerel – Campbell Russell
Chief Hen – Miranda Bevin
Owl – Sofia Livotov
Jay – Kathryn Stevens
Woodpecker – Kathryn Sharpe

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