mon 22/07/2024

The Cunning Little Vixen, Opera North review - magic of a classic staging | reviews, news & interviews

The Cunning Little Vixen, Opera North review - magic of a classic staging

The Cunning Little Vixen, Opera North review - magic of a classic staging

A real ensemble effort in Janáček’s cartoon-based tale of nature and human nature

Inspirational magic: James Rutherford as Forester with the cast of The Cunning Little VixenTristram Kenton

It’s good to think that there are some opera productions – not just compositions – that in themselves can have the status of classics. David Pountney’s 1980 interpretation of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen must be high on a list of contenders for that accolade. It was first seen at the Edinburgh Festival that year, performed by Scottish Opera in a co-production between them and Welsh National Opera.

Now Opera North have revived it for their audiences, and it’s lost none of its inspirational magic. That comes both from Pountney’s English translation of the text and from the wonderful set and costumes designed by Maria Björnson. The undulating forest floor, with badger’s sett and foxes’ earth, trees above and birds in their nests, opening up to reveal the village inn where the human characters are seen, is breathtakingly ingenious. You wonder whether elf’n’safety might have a thing to say about it these days, but all of Opera North’s performers, young and adult, were at home and adept at covering its hillocks and slopes whether running, sliding, somersaulting or whatever was required.

This was staged long before War Horse and even before Cats, so its visual ideas were pretty original at the outset, and the puppetry used to show the insects, and furry or feathery costumes with face painting for mammalian and bird life are as appealing as ever (unless you have a rooted objection to such things). The opera can certainly intrigue children, and Opera North are doing schools’ performances in every venue they visit with this one.

It's based, as every Janáček enthusiast knows, on a newspaper cartoon strip about everyday life in a countryside which the Moravian composer, along with many of his compatriots, knew and loved, and one of the lovely things about the set is that as a tableau it catches the simple but evocative quality that good cartooning demonstrates. Opera North created, over 20 years ago, an attractive production by Annabel Arden based on fairly similar design principles, but Pountney also manages to highlight the little bits of social and political comment in the fable-like story (for adults and children who are aware of them) – providing another element of the best cartoon creators’ art. It’s about both nature and human nature.

Elin Pritchard as Vixen Sharp Ears, Campbell Russell as Cockerel, Miranda Bevin as Chief Hen and members of the Chorus of Opera North as Hens © Tristram KentonIt's also pretty short as operas go (three acts, but less than two hours’ total performing time), and in this version the time flies by, as every detail of the text is brought to life. And with children taking many of the animal roles, and plenty of opportunity for effective clowning by the adults as the farm dog, the cockerel and the hens (among others), it becomes a simple matter of what’s-not-to-like.

Opera North are proud today of their “ensemble ethos” and The Cunning Little Vixen is a piece that invites the combination of varied talents in a multitude of ways. There are dancers (Lucy Burns and Stefanos Dimoulas), and the chorus provide a number of distinctive character roles, including the Cockerel's highly distinctive harem of hens (pictured above).

Leading the bigger parts was James Rutherford as the Forester (his Opera North debut): his mature vocal resonance is in demand these days, and he brought the straightforward honesty of a countryman to his central part in the story. Henry Waddington dug something powerful and a little deeper from the Parson’s self-musings – a touch of embitterment from one whose love life is a matter of what-might-have-been (something that Janáček, the respectable academic with repressed yearnings for a woman half his age, was well aware of). Paul Nilon – the Schoolmaster, another frustrated human whom we see in contrast with the innocent procreative impulses of the animals – was equally well cast and in good voice (holding the audience with his face alone in the interlude after the Vixen’s death); and Callum Thorpe as the Poacher was an equally effective guest, keeping him a little creepy without becoming a pantomime villain.

Elin Pritchard as Vixen Sharp-Ears © Tristram KentonElin Pritchard, the Vixen (pictured left), was rich in tone and sparky in her acting, eyes and movements capturing the cunning and liveliness which are a large part of the story’s attraction; and Heather Lowe’s Fox, more bright in sound and just as alive, teamed with her extraordinarily well. The love duet of Act Two, with their voices both soaring clearly over the orchestral sound and followed by a surge of joy to end the scene, was a highpoint of the whole evening. The production is also the first time in the Opera North theatre pit for former Hallé assistant conductor Andrew Gourlay, whose training was mainly in the north of England but whose impressive career has been mainly elsewhere since then. The ability to create dramatic pacing and transparently colourful sound palettes that he demonstrated in his Hallé time was evident in this work, too: it’s a gloriously written score anyway, but he cultivated the orchestra’s skills and enthusiasm for their task to excellent effect.

  • Further performances in Leeds, Salford, Nottingham, Newcastle and Hull
The love duet of Act Two, with their voices both soaring clearly over the orchestral sound, was a highpoint of the whole evening


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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