The Cunning Little Vixen

Leoš Janáček
Garsington Opera
Wormsley Estate

The Cunning Little Vixen Credit: Clive Barda

Janáček's playful opera is brimming with life and teeming with talent in Garsington’s new staging.

Maverick composer Janáček did away with the heroic epics and instead looked to a newspaper serial in Lidove noviny for his plot line. This illustrated serial inspired a fast-paced, humorous tale about a vixen, captured by Forester as a young pup. The antics that ensue are reasonably trivial but the charming, lively score (wonderfully conducted by Garry Walker) ensured The Cunning Little Vixen was an opera to remember.

Daniel Slater’s staging is delightful; the animals are evoked through playful costume additions, everyday objects sewn onto human clothes. The tube for an airbed pump is affixed to make a mosquito proboscis, the hens' combs festooned from inflated red rubber gloves. Vixen Sharp Ears (Claire Booth) and her Fox husband (Victoria Simmonds) wear fur-trimmed jackets, and never has red hair been made so desirable.

Opening in a Moravian inn, the Forester longs for a flame-haired lady, who struts poutily through the tavern depositing her fur coat. This becomes the symbol for Vixen Sharp Ears, but the opening image establishes the idea of a general longing for Terynka an otherwise unseen woman.

Sewn through the opera, Chiari Vinci and Jamie Higgins intertwine as the Vixen and Forester in instrumental interludes which are spendidly choreographed by Maxime Braham. The vixen is confused with Terynka, so this sense of longing can be attributed to both the forester's relationship with sharp ears and the men's desire for Terynka. Whilst writing The Cunning Little Vixen, Janáček had deep, unrequited feelings for his muse, Kamila Stösslová.

Designer Robert Innes Hopkins creates an inviting world. The bar dressed with leafy wallpaper swivels to reveal the same wallpapered world now in the shape of a hamsters' adventure playground. Rather than a literal wood, there are ladders strung up to the ivy-papered walls and oval holes to duck into for warrens.

Slater has the same approach to the animalistic effects, as is seen in costuming: the characters play up the qualities with which we’ve anthropomorphised the animal race. The hens knit, the Vixen is wily and seductive, the cock struts about and molests the hens.

This comic, cartoon-like approach cleverly blurs the lines between humans and animals. Slater doesn’t shy away from the more base humour Janáček intended. We have a speedy birthing with eight pups thrown onstage, there is urinating onto the badger, and plenty of animal intercourse.

Claire Booth is extraordinary as the Vixen. She animates the character and her physical ease leaping around the stage doesn’t impede on her warm tone and colourful portrayal of the score. Grant Doyle also shines vocally as the Forester.

This is an opera with an abundance of small roles, all wonderfully characterised, but also requiring an abundance of small people. Janáček writes for a children chorus, and as there are plenty of difficult children’s solos the piece could be a disaster zone but the young people from Old Palace School and Trinity Boys Choir couldn’t have been more engaging onstage.

Cunning Little Vixen is a triumph for Garsington, and this is a must-see production.

Reviewer: Louise Lewis