The Cunning Little Vixen

Reviewer's Rating

The legendary David Pountney production of Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen is back on stage and is a major part of the WNO tour. I found it fresh, exciting, and stimulating. There is nothing dated about its staging or the concept, though it is nearly 40 years old by my reckoning. It is very much a mellow contemplation of the human condition for grown ups; but because of its fabliau approach is also a good one for children and for introducing them to the art form of opera.

Janacek based his opera on a newspaper cartoon and it has about it the elements of a positive, much gentler Animal Farm, with the creatures of the forest anthropomorphised to take on human qualities that comment on our folly, our cruelty, our insensitivities; but also our ability to love, relationships and the cycle of a life. In our age of global warming, it is also a reminder of the beauty and variety of the natural world. The choreography and movement in this production add to the charm, especially with the forest animals played by children. The costumes by X>X> are wonderfully evocative of badgers or caterpillars; and there is a splendid, sweet use of puppetry as well. The wise old birds are suspended above the stage as in trees observing and sometimes commenting as a kind of chorus.

The underlying theme of the work is the cycle of life. But it works so well because the main characters are not only captivating but believable. All of Janacek’s requirements seem to have been met. Aoife Miskelly is quite superb as the vixen, Sharp Ears, moving and singing with complete control at all times, and great charm and wit. Her energetic interpretation is, as it must be, the captivating centre of this piece and she is well-matched by Lucia Cervoni in the “trouser role” of the fox who is her mate and the father of her cubs. Their courtship is one of the most charming scenes in the opera. The human characters are equally well-sung and performed, with special note having to be taken of Claudio Otelli as the Forester. And let us not forget the cockerel (Michael Clifton-Thompson) or his hens!

But above all, the score is played with total understanding, conviction and appreciation by the WNO orchestra under the baton of their music director, Tomas Hanus. The sometimes-difficult rhythms and the unique Janacek sonorities are superbly interpreted, bathing the whole concept in a kind of emotional glow. Some people simply do not respond to the Janacek orchestrations or melisma; but if you do, then you are bound to feel that this is the real thing. The forest set by Maria Bjornson that opens and closes to reveal other internal spaces is very clever and evocative of both the forest and the peasant lives, and the choreography by Elaine Tyler-Hall for the forest animals and also the spirit of Sharp Ears and the Dragon Fly, is beautifully conceived and well handled by the dancers. David Stout makes a serio-comic poacher and Peter van Hulle is a fine schoolmaster. This is an opera and a production that gets fresher and more appealing with every viewing. I cannot recommend it highly enough.