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17 Jun 2016

The Cunning Little Vixen, Glyndebourne

Four years ago, almost to the day (13th to 12th), I saw Melly Still’s production of The Cunning Little Vixen during its first Glyndebourne run. I found myself surprised how much more warmly I responded to it this time.

The Cunning Little Vixen, Glyndebourne

A review by Mark Berry


Speaking to various Glyndebourne people beforehand - you will, I trust, be pleased to learn that I unsubtly went on the offensive for easy box-office prospects, such as Gluck and Nono, to Sebastian Schwarz, the company’s new General Director - I was told that revisions had been made. However, I cannot honestly tell you whether my change of heart were owed to them, to a newfound sunnier disposition (maybe not), or to being able to see the entire stage rather than half of it. I shall leave comparisons on one side, now, then, and respond to what I heard and saw, which I enjoyed very much. (In fact, although I offer a link, I have not actually re-read my earlier review, and you may wish to follow suit.)

Still’s production nicely blurs boundaries between opera and ballet. There is, of course, a good deal of ballet music ‘proper’ in the opera, as well as mime, but there is not always so much of a dividing line anyway, and the visual æsthetic seen here, the animals more stylised, less realistic, than often, strengthens the almost-hybrid impression. Paule Constable’s lighting plays just as important a role as Dinah Collin’s costumes, if a rather different one: it helps to delineate the scenes, in conjunction with Tom Pye’s resourceful sets, themselves visually arresting even before humans and animals litter them (sometimes in more than one sense). Whilst I do not find that the production unduly sentimentalises, and its moments of absurdist humour welcome, I missed a stronger sense of the darkness that also lies at the heart of this tale of lifecycles and the collision of human and animal worlds. Perhaps, though, it is that quasi-balletic æsthetic that most characterises the production as a whole and grants its unity; perhaps it is also that to which I find myself better able to respond, if not entirely without reservation, than I did in 2012.

Jakub Hrůša’s conducting of the London Philharmonic seemed to me to quite close in character and sonority to that of Jiří Bělohlávek in London’s recent concert Jenůfa. Even for a non-Czech speaker such as I, there is no mistaking not only the conductor’s apparently instinctive ease with every musical idiom, but also the give and take between vocal and orchestral lines, not just texturally but also generatively. Having heard quite a bit of my earliest Janáček from Charles Mackerras, whose way with the composer’s music I continue to admire greatly, I often find myself intrigued that what I had taken (perhaps naïvely) to be somehow typically ‘Czech’ is not always the way with Czech conductors, not that they hold any monopoly on Janáčekian wisdom. (The composer, just like Elgar, is far too important to be confined by national considerations.) That almost Viennese sweetness, which in that Jenůfa performance, I hesitantly dubbed Bohemian rather than Moravian, was often to be heard again in the LPO’s playing, without that shading into any smoothing over of lines. So maybe I should be still warier of such easy - too easy? - typologies, and simply enjoy the often golden fruits of what I have heard. That is very much what I have done in practice, anyway. Angularity was certainly not absent; nor, on occasion, was weight of sound that looked forward to From the House of the Dead. But, like the operatic-balletic action on stage, aural impressions were often fleeting, or at least constantly self-transformative. Mackerras, in 2010 at Covent Garden, perhaps granted a still stronger sense of the life-arc of the whole, but a drawback on that occasion was translation into English. This was, in any case, an estimable performance, pretty much irreproachable with respect to orchestral playing.

As with that 2010 performance, indeed as with any performance I can recall having attended, there was an unusually strong sense of the cast acting as a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Somehow, this opera seems to inspire an especially strong sense of ensemble in those taking part; or perhaps it is partly a matter that it would not be worth putting it on if it did not. Elena Tsallagova, who also took the title role in a Paris performance I saw in 2008, has seen neither her vocal nor her stage athleticism dim with greater experience. Quite the contrary: this was a tour de force of effervescence, and thus very much a visual representation of the character herself as well as her deeds. Alžběta Poláčková’s Fox proved an excellent complement, embodying many of the same characteristics in principle, the character’s pride and affection palpable throughout. Christopher Purves made for a characterful and soulful Forester, master of and yet also mastered by the natural world into which he found himself persistently, almost Narnia-like, drawn. Sarah Pring, as his wife, played with, yet never merely relied upon, ‘peasant’ or at least ‘folk’ stereotype; I should never have guessed, without consulting the cast list, that she had doubled up as an equally convincing Owl. Likewise for the other doublings. Alexandre Duhamel revealed a rich yet agile baritone as Harašta. Colin Judson’s turn as the Schoolmaster offered one of many ‘character’ highlights. I could go on, but should essentially be repeating the cast list. As so often, it was the Glyndebourne Chorus, as ever excellently trained (by Jeremy Bines), which bound much of the musical drama together, almost as well as the orchestra. No one hearing this performance would have doubted either the stature or the sheer wonder of this most singular of operas.

Mark Berry

Leoš Janáček, The Cunning Little Vixen

Badger, Priest: Alexander Vassiliev; Forester: Christopher Purves; Cricket: Tate Nicol; Grasshopper: Kitty Casey; Mosquito, Schoolmaster: Colin Judson; Frog: Krishan Shah; Young Vixen Sharp Ears: May Abercombie; Forester’s Wife, Owl: Sarah Pring; Vixen Sharp Ears: Elena Tsallagova; Dog: Marta Fontanals-Simmons; Pepík: Eliza Safjan; Frantík: Rhiannon Llewellyn; Cockerel: Hannah Sandison; Hen: Natalia Tanasii; Pásek, Innkeeper: Michael Wallace; Fox: Alžběta Poláčková; Jay: Shuna Scott Sendall; Woodpecker: Angharad Lyddon; Harašta: Alexander Duhamel; Innkeeper’s Wife: Natalia Brzezińska; Dancers, Fox Cubs. Director: Melly Still; Set designs: Tom Pye; Costumes: Dinah Collin; Choreography: Mike Ashcroft; Lighting: Paule Constable; Glyndebourne Chorus (chorus master: Jeremy Bines)/London Philharmonic Orchestra/Jakub Hrůsá (conductor). Glyndebourne Opera House, Sussex, Sunday 12 June 2016.

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