Janáček’s 'The Cunning Little Vixen'

Rebecca Franks enjoys WNO's production of Janáček's woodland opera

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The Cunning Little VixenJanáček’s strange and beautiful woodland opera met with bafflement from its first audiences. But this tragicomic masterpiece has since become an opera-house favourite, and David Pountney’s 1980 production something of a landmark in its history.

Revived by Welsh National Opera as part of its ‘Free Spirits’ spring season this year, it’s vivid, lively and laugh-out-loud funny, with a characterful cast. The late Maria Bjørnson’s versatile sets immediately transport us into a bustling forest world, a well-matched visual complement to Janáček’s atmospheric score.

With her rich, fresh-toned soprano, Sophie Bevan made a coquettish, perky vixen, contrasting with the woodier tones of the cackling Forester, baritone Jonathan Summers. The pair drive the opera: the Forester taunted and tantalised by the vixen. And it’s this tension between animal and human world that underpins the work, giving it its depth and emotional complexity.

Janáček makes ‘Sharp-Ears’ (the Vixen) the most human of his animal characters  – gossiping, flirting, dreaming, taunting and tantalising – a sexually liberated, outspoken feminist and ‘free spirit’ who haunts the group of frustrated human men (the Forester, Poacher, Schoolmaster and Parson). They long to possess the vixen and her human spirit equivalent, the elusive Terynka. And the Poacher is driven by that most animalistic instinct – to kill. Indeed, we see the Vixen wiping out a brood of chickens, and killing a hare – nature, we are reminded, does not see this as a moral issue.

The Cunning Little VixenWhen the Vixen meets her fate at the end of the Poacher’s gun, however, it seems brutal and tragic – just as Lulu’s death had done in one of the season’s other ‘Free Spirit’ operas. In this performance at the Wales Millennium Centre, the single shot which fells Sharp-Ears was met with nervous giggles, then solid silence as it became clear she was dead, and with it our glimpse into the animal world. Yet, as the following unhurried, ravishingly beautiful pastoral music in the orchestra underscores, life continues. Are we humans foolish to feel such emotion at loss?

In the pit the WNO Orchestra conducted by Lothar Koenigs, chirruped, murmured and shimmered, though sometimes with hazy rather than focused edges; but the lyrical passionate moments, such as the love duet between the two foxes, came across superbly. Dancers, portraying animal spirits, added to the magical, charmed feel of the production, which includes plenty of down-to-earth comic touches and a witty, bawdy English translation, by Pountney, who also contributes a thought-provoking programme note on the Vixen and Lulu. The parallels are fascinating, adding another layer of meaning to two of the 20th-century’s great operatic masterpieces.

Photos: Catherine Ashmore

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