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27 May 2019

A life-affirming Vixen at the Royal Academy of Music

‘It will be a dream, a fairy tale that will warm your heart’: so promised a preview article in Moravské noviny designed to whet the appetite of the Brno public before the first performance of Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen at the town’s Na hradbách Theatre on 6th November 1924.

The Cunning Little Vixen: Royal Academy Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Hazel Neighbour (Fox) and Lina Dambrauskaitė (Vixen)

Photo credit: Robert Workman

 

However, while Janáček’s opera is based upon a comic strip - its libretto being drawn from the narrative which Rudolf Tĕsnohlídek wrote to accompany illustrations by Stanislav Lolek which were published in the Brno newspaper, Lidové noviny ­- as we follow the story of the life and adventures of the eponymous vixen, it’s no child’s play for a director to balance the elements of pure fantasy with the opera’s underlying realism.

In this production for Royal Academy Opera, director Ashley Dean has decided that simplicity is a virtue: and, with considerable assistance from Kevin Treacy’s terrific lighting design and Laura Jane Stanfield’s panoply of fabulous costumes, he’s proved right.

Woodpecker.jpgHelen May (Woodpecker). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Stanfield’s set comprises just a carpet of wood-chippings which creep a little way up a backdrop swathed in gradated washes of deep hues - indigo, ultramarine, emerald - the floods of colour powerfully evoking the forest milieu. A few props are carried in now and then, to indicate a change of locale: the hens roost on wooden chairs, the Schoolmaster and Priest grumble around tables in the inn. Treacy’s lighting makes the forest world by turns vivid and alive, nostalgic and restful, the colour drawing us into the animals’ world. In this way, the animals are not simply ‘symbols’, reflecting human flaws and frailties; rather, nature is truly present and real. A recollection by Janáček himself, of the process of composition, seems apposite: ‘It was odd how red fur continually gleamed before my eyes.’ Dean and movement director Christina Fulcher create a strong sense of ‘communities’: of a human society and an animal milieu. Most importantly, the interaction between them is persuasive.

In this regard, Stanfield’s incredibly detailed costumes also play large part. The above-mentioned Brno preview article tempted its readers with a description of the ‘seventy costumes’ designed by artist Eduard Milén which they would enjoy: grasshoppers and crickets would hop about in ‘yellow-green tailcoats and magnificent little wings’; nocturnal glow-worms would be equipped with reflectors ‘to light up their bottoms’; the ‘melancholy beauty’ of an iridescent dragonfly would be enhanced by the glittering gold of its fragile underwings.

Badger.jpgThomas Bennett (Badger). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Stanfield’s attention to detail is no less comprehensive or imaginative, and the results are beguiling as she brilliantly anthropomorphises the animal world. Hats, turbans, scarfs, shawls, feathers, fur, brocade: textures and colours dance before one’s eyes. The Cockerel struts like a Persian prince in golden boots and towering turban-crest; Badger is cloaked in a glorious grey fur coat, topped with a bandana-cum-bedcap; the hens shake their white petticoats and stamp about in marigold-stockings. The Vixen’s layers of red, orange and brown are both down-to-earth and feminine; the Fox strides confidently in his tall leather boots, but his shabby corduroy waistcoat speaks of a warm heart behind the pride. Cleverly, Stanfield manages to suggest both a rustic earthiness and a Victorian primness - adding piquancy, for example, to the scene where the animals peer into the Vixen’s underground den, spitting out their disapproval and outrage at her amorous activities with the Fox.

Cock and Hens.jpgSamuel Kibble (Cock). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

As the action unfolds, the immediacy and realism of the drama is wonderfully blended with fantasy and fable. There is a winning directness in scenes such as the henhouse, where the Machiavellian Cock forces the hens to lay ever-bigger eggs to feed his capitalist greed, while they remain blind to their own subjugation. When he meets a swift end, a dupe of the Vixen’s ‘playing dead’, we are both shocked and satisfied. The Act 1 dance between the Frog and the drunken Mosquito (he’s bitten the inebriated Forester), and the dawn games and chatter of the animals in Act 2, are enchanting.

Mosquito.jpg Peter Harris (Mosquito). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Having excelled in RAO’s recent productions of Semele and L’enfant et les sortilèges , here Lina Dambrauskaitė was a vivacious and tremendously engaging Vixen. Her soprano has a lovely freshness, but she also captured the Vixen’s strength and passion, as when she attacks the poacher Harašta or in her flirtation with the Fox, when she brags about her thievery and courage. Dambrauskaitė was well-partnered by Hazel Neighbour’s Fox, whose slightly heavier soprano shone richly against Dambrauskaitė’s brightness. Their love duet was a highpoint, but the revealed the gentle humour of their relationship too: there was a wicked glint in Fox’s eye as he glanced towards their den, wryly asking his Vixen, ‘How many children do we have? How many shall we have?’ (The opera was sung in Norman Tucker’s English translation.)

Vixen and Fox.jpgLina Dambrauskaitė (Vixen) and Hazel Neighbour (Fox). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

As the Forester, James Geidt revealed a strong, true baritone which conveyed the gamekeeper’s inner emotions with conviction. Initially evincing a morose world-weariness, his growing feeling for the Vixen - evidenced in a vulnerable hesitancy with his gun, allowing her to escape - flourished into a compassion which was both touching and credible.

Forester.jpgJames Geidt (Forester). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

The characterisation was consistently good. Peter Harris’s narration conveyed every ounce of the Schoolmaster’s pessimism, concluding with a laconic shrug of indifference. Thomas Bennett was an eloquent Priest; Niall Anderson displayed a powerful baritone as Harašta. Robert Forrest and Yuki Akimoto formed an effective pair as the Innkeeper and his wife. One can see why Vixen is attractive repertoire for the conservatoires. The cast is large thus allowing many students to take solo roles. Here they did so with aplomb, with Gabrielė Kupšytė’s Dog and Lorna McLean’s Chief Hen particularly noteworthy.

Poacher.jpg Niall Anderson (Poacher). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

The death of the Vixen was truly shocking, in its suddenness, lack of mawkishness and finality. One moment the Vixen danced and taunted Harašta, free and invincible; the next she lay dead on the forest floor. The scenes of Janáček’s opera are rather episodic, and not connected in any linear or causal fashion, yet they seemed to have led inescapably to this moment. Subsequently, though, Dean struggled to maintain dramatic shape and momentum, and the final scenes drifted somewhat towards Geidt’s concluding reflections on the death of the Vixen and on his own mortality. This pantheistic creed was, however, beautifully sung, with warmth and flexibility: reconciled to life’s transience, the Forester was embraced by the beauty of forest.

Philip Sunderland conducted the Royal Academy Sinfonia in a crisp and rhythmically tight reading of the chamber arrangement of Janáček’s score made by Jonathan Dove. The dance episodes had real verve and lightness. But, while I can appreciate why this reduced scoring was used, with just five string players in the 18-strong ensemble the wind were overly dominant - at times it sounded more like Stravinsky - and while Sunderland maintained a clarity of texture which ensured that we could appreciate the details of harp, percussion and suchlike, I missed the surges of Romanticism in the orchestral episodes in which the lyricism communicates an emotional sensuousness to complement the leanness and realism elsewhere.

That said, if this production lacked a certain wistfulness, then the absence of sentimentality was welcome. Human weaknesses were exposed by their interaction with the animal world: such frailties were understood, accepted and forgiven. The Cunning Little Vixen meant so much to Janáček that he requested that the conclusion be played at his own funeral. This performance at the Royal Academy was both heart-warming and life-affirming.

Claire Seymour

Janáček (arr. Jonathan Dove): The Cunning Little Vixen

Vixen Sharp Ears - Lina Dambrauskaitė, Fox - Hazel Neighbour, Forester - James Geidt, Priest/Badger - Thomas Bennett, Schoolmaster/Mosquito - Peter Harris, Forester’s Wife - Clare Tunney, Pásek, the Innkeeper - Robert Forrest, Harašta, the poacher - Niall Anderson, The Innkeeper’s Wife - Yuki Akimoto, Dog - Gabrielė Kupšytė, Owl - Samantha Quillish, Cock Samuel Kibble, Chief Hen/Vixen Mother - Lorna McLean, Jay - Hope Lavelle, Woodpecker - Helen May, Pepík, the Forester’s son - Aimée Fisk, Frantík, the Forester’s son - Maya Colwell, Vixen Cub - Anna Mengel, Frog - Kathleen Nic Dhiarmada, Grasshopper - Ashleigh Charlton, Cricket - Jack Lee, Hens and Fox Cubs (Caroline Blair, Margaret Mitchell, Clara Lobo, Maria Ejderos Sveinungsen, Avital Green, Leah McCabe); Director - Ashley Dean, Conductor - Philip Sunderland, Designer - Laura Jane Stanfield, Lighting Designer - Kevin Treacy, Movement Director - Christina Fulcher, Royal Academy Sinfonia.

Susie Sainsbury Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, London; Friday 24 th May 2019.

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