The Cunning Little Vixen

3 Jun

Glyndebourne again and this time for the new Cunning Little Vixen. Reflecting on this performance, I wondered whether a major problem with the opera could not be avoided by forgetting about the animal bit and concentrate on the fact that the animals are really human but freer or at least of a different class. So you could show the Vixen and her friends as street kids in some sort of urban community. Here the Forester could be a policeman and the Poacher the local drug dealer. You’d need a new translation or imaginative surtltles and, of course, you would miss the essentially woodland, natural setting of Janacek’s opera, but it might assist with what struck me as a major problem with Melly Still’s Glyndebourne production.

This was the huge problem of representing animals on the stage. Other recent directors – Pountney, Brydon and Arden –  have solved the problems to a greater or lesser extent and it was generally possible to work out what the animals were.  Here it was pretty difficult. There were obvious brushes for the Vixen and Fox but it took a while to sort out the frog, mosquito and the hens and I gave up when it came to the minor ones that haunted the forest.

The set was dominated by a vast tree in the centre of the stage and a path wending its way to the horizon with clouds and leaves in poster colours – this was a simple, child’s view of the forest and the world, neither naturalistic nor very challenging or interesting. Glyndebourne has made some fuss about people climbing down the path from the horizon but since you could see the harnesses, this didn’t strike me as particularly special.  Within that, Still direction created a human community – you saw Terynka and the Poacher getting married and there was nice drunkenness around the wedding – and directed the emotions successfully (the Fox and Vixen scenes were beautifully done).  The earlier scenes, particularly those with the hens and the Vixen’s return to the forest struck me as much less successful – they’re also the ones in the opera that need most help.  Similarly, the failure to really do anything successful with the animals meant that the last scene – one of the most moving and important of all Janacek’s operas – was messed up and didn’t have that sense of a world carrying on for ever that you need.

I think there were two other things which made this rather a more muted evening than I had hoped.  First, it was sung in Czech and, although the surtitles were suitably raunchy and explicit, this did mute an opera where a lot of the charm is in the immediate comprehension of the words.  Secondly, I think the decision to split the piece in the middle of the second act (pretty much exactly at the half way point, where the Forester tries to shoot the Vixen) was a mistake.  It’s a low key ending and one where the plot, such as it is, has barely got going.  Janacek knew what he was doing about breaking up the acts.  In fact, the opera is so short that you might as well do it all in one go and have, as Glyndebourne did when they revived the old Miller production, another piece with it – there must be quite a lot and it would avoid the problem of having the dinner interval after the piece has barely started or when it is almost finished.  Whether that would be possible with this set is another question.

Anyway, the music was pretty wonderful with Jurowski and the LPO doing wonderful things in the pit and a pretty good cast.  Sergei Leiferkus was sounding drier than usual but he made an authoritative Forester, Lucy Crowe was a really fine Vixen with just the right spirt and she sang it really well.  Emma Bell is a marvellous singer and is luxury casting as the Fox – her scenes with Crowe went really well.  William Dazeley was great as the Poacher and Adrian Thompson very good indeed as the Schoolmaster.  The other parts and children were well done.

You should come out of Vixen smiling, happy, feeling that you have seen one of the most glorious, happy, pantheistic pieces.  Musically, that was almost achieved; visually it wasn’t.

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