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Reviews

<em>The Cunning Little Vixen</em>, Grimeborn at the Arcola Theatre
02 Aug 2017

Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen at Grimeborn

Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen can be a difficult opera to stage, despite its charm and simplicity. In part it is a good, old-fashioned morality tale about the relationships between humans and animals, and between themselves, but Janáček doesn’t use a sledgehammer to make this point. It is easy for many productions to fall into parody, and many have done, and it is a tribute to The Opera Company’s staging of this work at the Arcola Theatre that they narrowly avoided this pitfall.

The Cunning Little Vixen, Grimeborn at the Arcola Theatre

A review by Marc Bridle



Photo credit: Robert Workman

 

But a narrow miss doesn’t lead to a triumph of a production, I’m afraid. There is some irony in the fact that the somewhat threadbare and ragged forest in which this production was set mirrored the paucity of magic and fantasy one craves for in this opera. I couldn’t really understand why the woman sat two seats to my left seemed to be helpless with laughter for much of this production when I found it to be largely oppressive, heavy-handed and lugubrious. Some rather clumsy on-stage set changes exaggerated this feeling.

If there was a strength to The Opera Company’s production then it rested in Janáček’s more experimental concepts, such as ballet and mime. These weren’t ideally synchronised - but then neither is nature. Two flies shadowing one another appeared barely symmetrical but were all-the-more realistic for it. The clever, quasi-puppetry of the hens was genuinely very imaginative, and in one of the few instances of light used beyond the glare of headlight white (in this case a muted red) to imitate death and blood-letting it seemed momentarily chilling; red ribbon hanging from severed hen’s heads rippled like streamers of blood. At its worst this opera can seem very fragmented with its very short scenes and at times the production really didn’t know what to make of these minimal pieces of action. It sometimes seemed chaotic, and some entrances felt so brief as to be almost meaningless. It felt like a little more direction, or just magical imagination, was all that was needed to lift the values up a notch.

As is so often the case with this opera, the Act II duet between the vixen and the fox is something of a tour de force. Perhaps the drama and the tension of the scene, which was really rather splendidly sung by Alison Rose (Vixen) and Beth Taylor (Fox) risked being undermined by the sheer cutesiness of their offspring (Janáček really does move this scene along at a frenetic pace). This was by some measure amongst the most assured singing of the evening - it had a nuanced balance of warmth and affection between the two principals that was largely missing elsewhere. Diction was very fine, something which had been a nagging problem with other singers most of the evening, despite the libretto having been sung in English and the cosiness of the venue itself. Olive Gibbs’s Forrester, too, was largely a resonant and clean performance.

The most controversial, and certainly problematic, part of this production was the orchestration. Arranged for a piano quintet Janáček’s score largely felt uncomfortably outside the decade in which it was written - the 1920s. It’s often alluded to how close this particular score is to some of the more Romantic late-Strauss operas but the effect here was to quash notions of Romanticism and instead highlight somewhat darker, more jagged motifs. Janáček uses woodwind in his full score to captivating effect but a piano simply doesn’t replicate this. Nor, it should be said, was colour really highlighted (something that was also emphasised by singers taking on multiple singing roles). This was a mahogany-hued scoring that was psychologically dark and sometimes menacing. The reduction did have the advantage of highlighting the brutalist ostinatos which reflect the less sentimental approach the composer took over his subject but perceptions of the opera were largely changed beyond all recognition.

The Opera Company took a major risk in presenting this particular work as their very first production and in many respects it didn’t quite come off.

Marc Bridle

Alison Rose (Vixen), Camilla Farrant (Cricket, Frog, Hen, Forrester’s Wife, Fly, Fox Cub), Beth Taylor (Dog, Hen, Fly, Fox), Tim Langstone (Mosquito, Rooster, Schoolmaster, Jay), Oliver Gibbs (Forrester), Ashley Mercer (Badger, Priest, Harasta), Abigail Atttard Monalto and Jade Brider (Dancers).

Guido Martin-Brandis (Direction), Oliver Till (Music Direction), Nina von Der Werth (Choreography), Alexander McPherson (Set Design).

1st August, Arcola Theatre, London E8.

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