27 Jun 2014
Leoš Janáček : The Cunning Little Vixen, Garsington Opera at Wormsley
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.
San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
In a letter to Kamila Stösslová dated the 10th of February that year he writes wistfully “I have begun writing The Cunning Little Vixen. A merry thing with a sad end: I am taking up a place at that sad end myself and I so belong there”.
It is tempting to see a connection between the opera’s composition and the purchase of his country home in Hukvaldy “beyond the stream, great forests” which he began to regard as something of a retirement home. The opera is one of those works, earthy, especially in this translation, and yet all the more affecting for containing a profound truth. Humans and animals alike inhabit the forest, we share the same emotions, we live briefly, all too soon we die but the forest lives on. As in that wonderful epilogue to Das Lied von der Erde, “The beloved earth everywhere blossoms and greens in springtime anew. Everywhere and forever the distances brighten blue”. The Forester’s ecstatic farewell at the opera’s close touches similar emotions, albeit refracted through Janáček’s unique prism.
Of course Cunning Little Vixen can also be taken as entertainment pure and simple with its hilarious scenes in the local pub with the repressed minister, the even more repressed schoolmaster and the almost equally repressed Forester getting as we would say in Scotland “fou and unca happy” (ie ‘smashed), then at the Forester’s hut with the hens, the cock - here summarily ‘bobbited’ on stage by the Vixen - and the dog Lapak, and last but not least the rapturous (and extremely funny) courtship and mating of Vixen Long Ears with the Fox and other scenes in the forest. For that reason it is ideal summer opera - Glyndebourne did it recently - although, given the overt but scarcely suppressed sexual longing of nearly all the characters, it is a moot point - unlike, say, Hansel & Gretel- whether it would ever be suitable for children. However, it is certainly a ‘feel-good’ opera - at least until the Vixen is shot by the macho poacher Harasta who, as we hear from subsequent conversation in the pub, will shortly marry the local object of desire, Terynka, who will be wearing a new fox fur muff for the occasion. At that point the plot darkens.
Given Janáček’s own unconsummated passion over many years for Kamila Stösslová, it is hard not to see the main character’s emotions as at least partly autobiographical. Thankfully Janáček’s relationship with Kamila seems to have remained entirely proper. Had it been otherwise we should probably never have had that magnificent flow of late masterpieces. Ironically I knew an old Czech gentleman in Malta called Jaroslav who had fallen in love with a married woman across a crowded theatre in Prague in the 1920’s and whose unrequited passion for her lasted till his death some 50 years later. He produced an epic love poem in her honour running to over 100 pages which he would read to his friends with tears streaming down his face.
This, the final opera in Garsington’s current season of three operas, is an undoubted delight and there are no obvious weak links in the substantial cast, Claire Booth consistently excellent as the Vixen and the stentorian Grant Doyle impressive as the Forester. The Cunning Little Vixen has a large cast of other animals - the frog, the grasshopper, the badger, the hens (excellent in their movements) as well as those already mentioned and assorted humans of whom both Timothy Robinson’s sad schoolmaster and Henry Waddington’s priest both deserve special mention. So too does Victoria Simmonds characterful fox.
That said, there have to be a number of minor reservations about the production itself. With its rural setting Garsington should be an ideal location for Cunning Little Vixen (the sliding doors behind the stage open onto woods beyond, surely a perfect backdrop for the forest scenes but, unlike Vert-Vert, this was not used).The interior scenes in the inn had a set that looked uncomfortably like Laura Ashley wallpaper from the 1960’s - one could see what the designer had in mind since this had to double as the forest glade when the set worked (on several occasions it jammed and the stage staff had difficulty moving it). Nor were the Vixen’s nonchalant movements entirely convincingly foxy (I speak from experience as we have a vixen which regularly uses our back garden and has even joined us for lunch on sunny days, sitting on the roof of our garden shed and eyeing us up curiously as we eat; she either moves very cautiously or trots along quite rapidly).
For the most part Garry Walker and the orchestra had the score’s measure, refusing to jolly it along too quickly and allowing its moments of wonder and ‘wood magic’ to emerge naturally; however, there were some occasions where the music cried out for greater weight and intensity, notably that glorious pantheistic epilogue where the Forester, alone in the forest, reflects on his lost youth and his loveless marriage and - when he sees a fox cub resembling the young vixen - wonders if he should take it home with him.
A postscript. Given the awful story of the tenor at the Met who took a heart attack some years ago during a performance of The Makropoulos Case and fell from a ladder, it was interesting to see boys/cubs clambering up and down ladders without helmets, body harnesses and carabiners. Fortunately the ubiquitous Health & Safety’s writ does not seem to have reached Garsington. After all, boys will be boys and we all survived falling out of the odd tree. Long may it continue. Viva la liberta!
The Cunning Little Vixen
Music Leos Janáček
Libretto Leos Janáček based on the novel Liska Bystrouska by Rudolf Tesnohlidek,
Forester:: Grant Doyle, Forester’s wife : Lucy Schaufer, Schoolmaster \: Timothy Robinson, Priest :Henry Waddington, Harašta : Joshua Bloom, Pásek (innkeeper) : Aaron Cawley, Pásek’s wife : Helen Anne Gregory, Pepík : William Gardner, Frantík : Theo Lally, Young Vixen Bystrouška : Alexandra Persinaru, Vixen Bystrouška : Claire Booth, Fox : Victoria Simmonds, Cricket: Isaac Flanagan, Grasshopper : Sophie Thomson, Frog : Gabriel Kuti, Mosquito : Richard Dowling, Lapák a dog: Anna Harvey
Cock : Alice Rose Privett, Chocholka a hen : Katherine Crompton, Badger :Bragi Jonnson, Woodpecker : Marta Fontanals-Simmons, Owl : Grace Durham, Jay : Elizabeth Karani, Vixen dancer :Chiara Vinci, Forester dancer :Jamie Higgins,
Conductor :Garry Walker, Director : Daniel Slater, Designer : Robert Innes Hopkins,
Lighting Designer : Tim Mascall, Choreographer: Maxine Braham, Assistant conductor Holly Mathieson, Garsington Opera Orchestra