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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.

Leos Janáček The Cunning Little Vixen, Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 25th June 2014

A review by Douglas Cooksey


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!

Douglas Cooksey

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

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