The Cunning Little Vixen

Leoš Janáček
Opera North
Leeds Grand Theatre

The cast Credit: Tristram Kenton
Elin Pritchard (Vixen) Credit: Tristram Kenton
Elin Pritchard (Vixen), Campbell Russell (Cockerel) and members of the Chorus of Opera North Credit: Tristram Kenton

This particular staging of The Cunning Little Vixen—directed by Sir David Pountney in 1980 as part of a Janáček season performed by Scottish Opera and the Welsh National Opera—has gained the reputation of an enduring classic. For Rupert Christiansen, former opera critic of The Daily Telegraph, Pountney’s version "skilfully treads the fine line" between "sentimentalized, Disneyfied tweeness" and "pantomime".

I’m glad to report that the legacy of the 1980 production has been upheld by Opera North’s splendid revival. Janáček once referred to The Cunning Little Vixen as a "merry thing with a sad end", which hardly does justice to an opera which succeeds in juxtaposing the lives of humans and animals in ways that are both amusing and poignant.

Whereas the animal characters are spiritually free and able to live in the moment, their human counterparts are plagued by self-doubt, dwelling too much on past regrets. This contrast can be seen most forcefully in the characters of the Vixen (Elin Pritchard) and the Forester (James Rutherford), who briefly entraps her. Whereas the latter is a gloomy and repressed figure (at least until his epiphany at the end), the title heroine is full of energy and ideological fervour, espousing feminist and anti-capitalist sentiments.

There is much to admire in this revival of The Cunning Little Vixen, but one must begin by talking about Maria Björnson’s stunning designs. With its undulating green hills, overshadowed by leafy branches, the set design has the clarity and vibrancy of a children’s picture book. Perhaps my favourite touch is having the bird characters sat in rocking chairs suspended from above while the action takes place below.

Equally magical are Björnson’s costumes, which transform the Opera North ensemble into a menagerie of different creatures. Particularly effective is the Vixen’s outfit, her flapper dress hinting at the decade in which Janáček’s opera was first written and her feather boa serving as a substitute tail.

The Cunning Little Vixen has a wide range of colourful characters, providing the talented Chorus of Opera North with ample opportunities to display their skills. It seems unfair to pick favourites, but I was particularly struck by the female cast members who played the helpless chickens: they beautifully embodied the animals’ body language, bringing humour and pathos to their short-lived characters.

In addition to the Chorus, the opera relies upon a cast of 26 children, ranging in age from 8 to 15, who add considerably to the charm of the production. There are also mesmerising performances from the dancers Lucy Burns and Stefanos Dimoulas, whose graceful movements bring an unearthly quality to an opera that is centrally concerned with the natural world.

Elin Pritchard is terrific as the title heroine, beautifully capturing the Vixen’s sense of mischief and delight. The role of the Forester is understandably less showy, but James Rutherford invests the part with a sense of maturity and authenticity. As the Vixen’s husband, Heather Lowe is suitably dashing, building upon her excellent work in The Snow Maiden and Giulio Cesare.

The Opera North Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Gourlay, offers a wonderful rendition of Janáček’s score, conveying the richness and vibrancy of forest life. Their expressive playing makes it easy to understand why The Cunning Little Vixen is viewed as one of the Czech composer’s towering achievements.

Reviewer: James Ballands

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