The Cunning Little Vixen
Music and libretto by Leoš Janáček after stories and cartoons by Rudolf Těsnohlídek and Staníslav Lolek, revised version by Jiri Zahrádka and English translation by Sir David Pountney
The Lowry, Salford
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Opera does not have wide appeal. The standard features—dialogue sung rather than spoken and often in a foreign language, archaic storylines of little relevance to the present day—tend to deter casual audiences. With The Cunning Little Vixen, however, director Sir David Pountney may have hit upon a formula that will attract patrons who previously had little interest in opera.
To an extent, he is following a path blazed by author Leoš Janáček who based his opera not upon grand tales of gods or the privileged elite but rather newspaper cartoons about a crafty female fox. Pountney’s production, however, goes wider, drawing in a range of aspects of popular culture to create an easily accessible show.
In the manner of The Lion King, the production touches upon the circle of life. The story opens and closes with a boozy Forester (James Rutherford) being rudely awakened from a nap in the forest and events repeating themselves—the daughter of the Vixen being mistaken for her mother and a frog waking the Forrester in the same way as his grandfather. In a fine touch, the Forester learns he is a legend to the animals in the same way the Vixen is the subject of stories in the human world. There is a sense of melancholy; at the opening, the Forester bemoans the passion in his marriage has begun to decline, but by the conclusion, this is tinged with a degree of acceptance and gratitude for past pleasures.
There is a high level of social comment, but it is often murky rather than plain and simple. Elin Pritchard plays Sharp-Ears the Vixen as a farmyard version of Boris Johnson. While she might challenge the patriarchy in a hen house or preach socialism, the objective is to serve herself rather than others. The hens end up slaughtered while she runs free, and she occupies the home of the privileged person who is evicted due to her rhetoric.
Sir David Pountney loots popular culture to provide many identification points. The Hens chuckling around the farmyard in hairnets suggest Nora Batty. They even get their own curtain call. The overall tone of the production is that of a children’s classic like Winnie-the-Pooh or The Wind in the Willows. A morose farmyard dog is a dead ringer for Eeyore.
The bright and cheerful set and costumes by Maria Björnson look like they have been lifted out of a children’s book. Theatregoers have become accustomed to animals being represented by slick, sophisticated puppets but here the designs are more basic—static puppets on the end of a line manipulated by a cast member in a costume of the same design. There is a roughness to the costumes like children playing dress-up—Sharp-Ears is dressed in the style of a 1920s flapper with a feather boa representing her tail. Typical of the unsentimental approach of the opera, a dragonfly reaches the end of a short lifespan and expires within a single scene.
The set—deep rolling hills—is rich and brightly coloured and even provides a visual gag showing how hard it is to climb the hill while intoxicated. The versatile set splits apart to reveal the interior of the farmhouse and pub.
There are a surprising number of instrumental pieces in the score which are exploited by choreographer Elaine Tyler-Hall to allow dancers Lucy Burns and Stefanos Dimoulas to demonstrate the spirit of the Vixen and the gentle grace of the animals.
There are relatively few principal roles in the opera, which gives the mighty chorus of Opera North the chance to really show their expertise. In particular, members of the Youth Chorus who seem to be having the time of their lives as fox cubs, rabbits and associated animals.
The libretto is not only translated into English but into vernacular English with Sharp-Ears gossiping about her neighbours in a scandalous manner.
Opera North’s production of The Cunning Little Vixen will charm established fans of opera and may even succeed in attracting new ones.
Reviewer: David Cunningham