This extraordinary opera by Janacek remains an enigma to me. Its bizarre mix of two stories – one about a sad group of humans, the other about a riotous group of animals – never fails to intrigue and, usually, to delight.
This splendid production by Eleanor Burke for Hampstead Garden Opera is certainly delightful and captures the lives of the woodland creatures with verve and joy – but, despite a fine performance by Toki Hamano as the forester, it is not quite as successful at portraying the unfulfilled lives of the villagers. Hampstead Garden Opera has a mission to provide opportunities for young artists to perform in fully produced versions of major operas and so there are two casts, taking turns at singing the main roles – on the night I saw the opera, Chelsea Kolic sang the vixen and came close to stealing the show. But having seen a number of other productions over the years it is not unusual for the animals to outshine the humans. Perhaps that was Janacek’s intention.
Vixen Sharp Ears is captured by the forester when very young and brought up as a house pet. But her adventurous spirit cannot be confined in the house and yard and eventually she kills all the chickens and escapes to the wood. There she evicts Mr Badger and eventually a handsome dog fox joins her in the sett she has occupied. The forester and his drinking buddies meet at the Inn and bemoan their respective fates and dwell on unfulfilled dreams. Eventually the poacher Harasta sets a trap for the Vixen, now the mother of an innumerable pack of cubs, and shoots her. Life– in wood and village – goes on and the forester comes across a new vixen.
The stage at Jacksons Lane is just the right size for this sort of production and the acoustics are fine – the young singers do not have to strain to be heard. The only problem is the lack of an orchestra pit. The conductor and the chamber orchestra are ranged down one side of the stage – the percussionist is on the other side. The singers do not have the conductor in their eyeline and this does lead to occasional uncertainties. Charlotte Henery’s set is simple but brilliant– the stage is covered in a green lawn carpet and we soon learn that there are a series of trap doors from which animals (and props) appear.
As the vixen, Chelsea Kolic shines. She has a rich and characterful soprano and she is also lithe and vigorous as she brings to life the woodland animal – the courtship between the vixen and Fox Gold-stripe is funny and touching.Mezzo Rozanna Madylus sings this role with style and brings a touch of swagger to the part. Toki Hamano has a rich baritone vice and brings a telling sense of loss and melancholy to the part of the forester. The roles of his friends – the schoolmaster, the priest, the poacher and the innkeeper – are all well sung, though the plot allows them little scope for dramatic nuance. There are too many “bit parts” to catalogue and praise them all but I have to give a special commendation to the children playing the roles of the woodland creatures.
Conductor Lada Valesova gave a well paced and persuasive account of the score and the small group of twelve instrumentalists produced a musical web that allowed the singers space to flourish – not always guaranteed when there is no pit. Director Eleanor Burke filled the stage with action and found the fun and the pathos and the deep love of nature that permeates Janacek’s music. The opera still perplexes me but this HGO production is as good an introduction to the piece as you could hope to find.