Last Updated on February 21, 2022
A New Production of The Cunning Little Vixen
Storm Eunice put pay to the planned opening of a new production of The Cunning Little Vixen on Friday. Hotly anticipated, this first main stage production for ENO by Jamie Manton moved to Sunday and I was genuinely excited to go along. With sets and costumes by Tom Scutt (currently hitting the headlines as the designer for Cabaret at the Playhouse), there was promise of a visual treat to complement the lyrical music in one of Janáček’s best-loved later works. The curtain rises to an almost industrial setting, the backstage of the Coliseum stage, complete with rigging and fire exit signs with a central scroll, painted with the foetus of a child.
As the story progresses, the scroll rolls on. The artwork of Anya Allin on the rolling scroll is central to the story here – a depiction of the cycle of life. The timekeepers, dressed in charcoal grey sou’westers, wellingtons and hats move the set around. The humans are all in browns and greys while the animals, insects and plants are in brilliantly vivid costumes. There’s a real wow factor to many of them – intricate detailing with a humorous note. The hens wear wedding dresses, the dragonflies have shiny metallic aviator suits and the younger fox-cubs appear in fluffy nightwear. The level of detail makes me wish for an exhibition to explore the brilliance behind the design.
The Young Vixen admirably played by Esme Gupta-Wright chases a frog, thinking it might be nice to eat, and ends up driving it into the lap of the sleeping Forester (Lester Lynch) who wakes and catches the vixen. He brings the role brilliantly to life with some sensitive acting and a rich, rounded baritone.
The Forester’s Wife (Madeleine Shaw) is less convinced by the presence of The Vixen, especially as the cub grows. She persuades her husband to tie up The Vixen in the yard. The Vixen, Sharp Ears, now fully grown manages to escape and first terrorises the hens and kills the resplendent rooster before escaping to the forest. Sally Matthews plays a mischievous, charismatic vixen, though at times she’s overwhelmed by the band.
The second act opens to The Vixen, now in the forest, finding a home for herself by displacing the Badger (British Bass, Clive Bayley who also plays the priest). This is indeed a Cunning Little Vixen!
The Forester, Schoolmaster (Alan Oke) and Priest are found in the local pub drinking and obsessing over the gipsy girl Terynka. When the pub closes and the drunken trio are kicked out by the Innkeeper (John Findon), they start to make their way home. The Priest is morose, lamenting his failed love affair, while the Schoolmaster stumbles around, believing he’s seen Terynka. A mellifluous tenor, Alan Oke perfectly capture the role.
The Forester spots The Vixen and fires two shots at her, both of which miss. Instead, The Vixen meets The Fox, Gold Spur, played by Pumeza Matshikiza
The seduction scene is charming, almost innocent, although Matzhikiza’s vocals are often overwhelmed by the orchestra and not a perfect match for Matthew’s stronger, bright and lyrical soprano. The couple retire to The Vixen’s den and emerge for a quick woodland wedding when The Vixen reveals she is pregnant. Fox cubs of all shapes and sizes appear, all played by children drawn the ENO’s new initiative to work with local schools. There are in total 20 children singing as The Vixen’s cubs and other woodland creatures. All have been cast from years five and six(aged 9-11) and they are predominantly drawn from two local primary schools in Westminster. It’s an excellent plan, to pull children into opera by engaging them both in activities at their schools and by inviting them either to participate or to watch their friends on stage at the London Coliseum, which is one of London Theatreland’s most striking auditoriums.
The Poacher Harašta (Ossian Huskinson) complete with a padded upper bodysuit appears on stage. A young bass-baritone, his interpretation of the role is suitably swaggering and vocally excellent. He’s the one who is genuinely engaged to Terynka and in preparation for his wedding, he sets a fox trap, which The Vixen, The Fox and their cubs mock. But Harašta, from a distance, shoots and kills The Vixen.
The final act starts at the Inn, where The Forester learns Harašta will marry Terynka that very day and has given her a fox fur as a wedding present. He returns to where he first met The Vixen, looking for peace. In the distance, he sees a fox cub playing and plans to catch it and bring it up better than he did The Vixen so that people don’t talk about them in the papers or try to make an Opera about them!
One of Janáček’s best-loved later works, this production of The Cunning Little Vixen is the first by ENO since 2001. With a score typical of Janáček’s musical style − incorporating the folk music and speech rhythms of his Moravian roots − the tale of the capture and escape of the titular fox treads a careful balance between comic and tragic. This new contemporarily staged production takes us into a fairytale world, contrasting the ageing human world with the constant renewal of the animal kingdom. It’s admirable in making very clear the underlying philosophical points through the set and through moments like the final words of The Frog (a very poised and stoic Robert Berry-Roe) who, on being caught by the Forester at the very end explains pointedly that there was a case of mistaken identity and that his Grandfather had told him stories about the Forester.
It’s an opera that, curiously, was based on a series of newspaper articles by Rudolf Těsnohlídek, about on a Czech rural community featuring a half-wild, half-tame vixen. Janáček became intrigued by the concept and asked permission to create an operatic text from the newspaper features. Written in the local Moravian dialect (Líšeň), it is a philosophical reflection on the cycle of life and death by including the death of The Vixen while her cubs live on. The English National Opera performs, as always, in English and I wonder if the very capable, perceptive and funny translation makes the lyrics less effective. Certainly in this production, some of the folk songs seemed to be subsumed by the excellent if at times overwhelming orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins
Lasting just over two hours with one interval of 20 minutes, this is a production that is genuinely accessible by all ages. Take advantage of the fabulous offers for children and young people at English National Opera (there are free tickets at every production for all under 21 and discounts for those under 35) and go with the family. The kids on stage are the biggest stars here.
18 February −1 March 2022
Remaining Performances: Feb 22, 24, 26 & Mar 1 at 19.30
Feb 26 at 14.30 (relaxed performance)
Conductor: Martyn Brabbins, Director: Jamie Manton, Set Designer/Costume Designer: Tom Scutt, Lighting Designer: Lucy Carter, Movement Director: Jenny Ogilvie, Translator: Robert T. Jones & Yveta Synek Graff.
The Cunning Little Vixen
English National Opera,
St Martin’s Lane,
London WC2N 4ES
Looking for something different? We also recommend La Boheme, still showing at ENO