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30 Jun 2019

The Cunning Little Vixen at the Barbican Hall

The presence of a large cast of ‘animals’ in Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen can encourage directors and designers to create costume-confections ranging from Disney-esque schmaltz to grim naturalism.

The Cunning Little Vixen: Sir Simon Rattle, LSO, Barbican Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Lucy Crowe (Vixen) and Gerald Finley (Forester)

Photo credit: Mark Allan

 

And history is on their side. An advertorial in the Brno newspaperMoravské noviny, prior to the premiere of the opera at the Na hradbách Theatre on 6th November 1924 had little to say about the music or the design, but promised the paying public ‘seventy costumes’ designed by artist Eduard Milén, including - as Jennifer Sheppard notes in her article ‘How the Vixen Lost Its Mores: Gesture and Music in Janáček’s Animal Opera’ - ‘grasshoppers and crickets in “yellow-green tailcoats and magnificent little wings”; black-and-white glow-worms with reflectors “to light up their bottoms” in the night scenes; a wire-frame rooster costume lined with brightly coloured fabrics; and a green, blue and black dragonfly of “melancholy beauty”, whose tiny, delicate underwings were illuminated in glittering gold’. [1]

Not to be outdone, for their first production of the opera in May 1925 the Prague National Theatre engaged Josef Čapek, brother of the author Karel, as designer, and he duly dished up ‘flying goggles for the mosquito; flouncy polka-dot petticoats for the hens; cowboy spurs with golden rowels for the rooster; a furry deerstalker for the forester’s dog’ (Ibid).

Such aspirations for mimicry-cum-verisimilitude are not on the agenda of Peter Sellars, whose production of Vixen - first seen in Berlin in 2017 - was performed at the Barbican this week by his long-term collaborator and friend, Sir Simon Rattle, and the LSO. Here, minimalism prevails. The entire cast - soloists, London Symphony Chorus, the children of LSO Discovery Voices - are dressed in simple black and perform the action on a bare raised platform in from of the orchestra. Props comprise the odd chair or table, carried on by cast members as required.

Fox and Vixen.jpgSophia Burgos (Fox) and Lucy Crowe (Vixen). Photo credit: Mark Allan.

In the light of Janáček’s rather arbitrary ‘pairings’ of man and beast - the same singer takes the roles of the Forester’s wife and the Owl, the Priest’s animal embodiment is the Badger, and the inebriate Schoolteacher and Mosquito share a role and a bottle - my first thought was how on earth were we to distinguish the animals’ identities and their human correlations? But, I need not have worried: video designers Nick Hillel and Adam Smith (of Yeast Culture) offer an Attenborough-esque Planet Earth natural history side-show which presents tadpoles as they wriggle into life, dragonflies engaging in shimmering. flickering mating rituals, peering owls, migrating geese, fluttering sun-flecked forests and moonlit mountains.

Indeed, Sellars’ approach pre-empts objections which are sometimes voiced about the stylisation of gesture in which some productions indulge; and if we can’t always differentiate between man and animal, then this only serves to emphasise the inter-connectedness of the entire natural world, man included.

Billboards in Brno in 1924 had enticed prospective punters, ‘It will be a dream, a fairy tale that will warm your heart’, but there is no sentimentality in Sellars’ Vixen. That’s not to say that it does not touch one’s heart, but the strings it pulls of the more sombre, dark kind. Warmth came in the form of the wonderful playing of the LSO. The score includes many instrumental episodes, which are often both balletic and mimetic, and Sir Simon Rattle ensured that every rhythm was delineated with pulsating vigour, every surge of harmonic passion blossomed fulsomely, every extreme of register was meticulously scaled: there was some especially beautiful playing from the strings. In the programme booklet Rattle declares this opera was “the piece that made me want to become an opera conductor … and [its] still one of the pieces that reduces me to tears more easily than any other”, and the loving tenderness with which he articulated the score’s emotions and dramas might well have inspired a tear from many in the Barbican Hall. The LSO did not just mimic or suggest stage movement or feeling, they took responsibility for the drama, filling in the gaps in the episodic structure, immersing us in a glorious musical embrace.

Lucy Crowe as Vixen Mark Allan.jpg Photo credit: Mark Allan.

Lucy Crowe was a stunning Vixen - insouciant, courageous, feral, sensuous, daring, brazen and honest. This is one of best things I’ve seen Crowe tackle. This Vixen was strong and nimble, and Crowe relished the physical animation as much as she did the vocal vivaciousness. Standing astride the Forester’s kitchen table she impassionedly goaded the repressed hens into socialist revolt, and when she failed, she resorted to tricksy tactics, claiming that she’d rather be buried alive than live with such losers. A winning move: the Cock’s vanity got the better of him and his ‘bravery’ saw him succumb to the ‘playing dead’ mime. The Vixen’s gluttonous gourmandising on chicken skewers was played out in gloriously chin-greasy detail on screen.

Crowe’s Vixen was both ethereal - her soprano silky in the reflective soliloquies - and earthy. In the cartoons by Tĕsnohlídek upon which the opera was based, the Vixen relieves herself into the badger’s den to force him to evacuate, and Crowe sprayed with gleeful vigour! She sang with flashes of brightness and fire, balanced by soft sensuousness. It was an utterly beguiling performance.

Sophia Burgos’ Fox was surprisingly tender: no strutting and posing here, instead coaxing and caring in a beautiful love duet with the Vixen. Initially I thought that Burgos struggled to carry over the strong orchestral fabric, but she grew in stature, crafting a convincing personality: a sort of house-husband of paternal benevolence, anxiously ushering their growing brood of cubs into the under-stage den when their mother was threatened by Hanno Müller-Brachmann’s Poacher, Harašta, after she’d raided his basket of poultry. If the Vixen’s death did not seem quite so shocking as it sometimes can do, then that did not seem to matter: the Vixen’s death was not the climax of a dramatic arc but rather just one happening, incidental and quickly forgotten by a natural world whose chief concern was to nurture the next generation.

As the Forester, Gerald Finley’s performance captured the moral complexities faced by the humans living in the forest. Amorality met anxiety met ambiguity in the personage of this Forester. This was an expressive tour de force. And, a vocal triumph too. Some may have objected, but I loved the way that the original cartoon’s intimations that the Vixen was the animal embodiment of Harašta’s seductive beloved, Terynka, was referenced in Finley’s encounter early with the Vixen - a passionate love-making accompanied by overflowing orchestral warmth, which teased out myriad emotions. Upon returning home, the Forester was met with a disapproving scowl from his Wife, richly sung by Paulina Malefane (also Owl and Woodpecker). Was the encounter real or imagined? The ghostly green glow in which the encounter was bathed by lighting designer Ben Zamora made it difficult to know. But, their subsequent struggle in which they seemed locked was as much a physical one as a psychological one: with the Vixen, by turns, beaten for stealing the Forester’s food, biting back in defiance, nestling needily alongside her captor, needling him with her desire for freedom.

Hunting trap.jpgPhoto credit: Mark Allan.

This was a luxuriously cast performance, even allowing for the dearth of native Czech speakers. Peter Hoare was equally commanding and characterful as Schoolmaster, Cock or Mosquito; Jan Martiník was a fine Parson/Badger, gruff and glum. Müller-Brachmann stalked opportunistically and menacingly around the Barbican Hall, his hunting gun perched, ever-ready. Anna Lapkovskaja’s Dog was convincing put out by the arrival of a usurper in the Forester’s household, but animal instinct took over though the companionship she craved was denied her. The London Symphony Chorus sang with vigour and managed their entrances and exits swiftly, while the children of the LSO Discovery Chorus were well drilled, vocally and dramatically, charming us in every scene in which they appeared.

And, what of Sellars’ slide-show? Well, images such as the gruesome hunter’s trap and the conveyor belts of chickens heading to their destined doom certainly made their mark. But, the city apartment blocks were an odd evocation of the Forester’s milieu and the folk dancers who supplied the entertainment at Harašta’s wedding seemed less fitting. Overall, I found the visuals rather hyperactive: however well one knows the opera, how could one take in the dramas playing out on both screen and stage, in song and symphonic strata, simultaneously?

The three Acts ran segue with no interval; in fact, Rattle allowed barely a breath between Acts - just enough time to get personnel off-stage and back on again. The effect was to cohere the episodic scenes - which have little to connect them, chronologically or in terms of dramatic linearity - into one flowing stream of nature, emphasising not so much the epiphanic rebirth that the Vixen’s death bestows upon the Forester, but rather the continuous renewal of life, and the speed of transitions between seasons and generations. At the close the Forester espies the Frog: not you again, he declares, only to be answered by a cheeky, slimy nose-rub and the riposte, “That wasn’t me, it was my grandfather. He told me all about you.” The moment was simultaneously insouciant and of import: here was the brevity of life, the brutality and benevolence of nature. Like the whole performance, it was beguiling and brilliant.

Claire Seymour

Gerald Finley (Forester), Lucy Crowe (Vixen), Sophia Burgos (Fox), Jan Martiník (Badger/Parson), Peter Hoare (Mosquito/Cock/Schoolmaster), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Harašta), Irene Hoogveld (Jay), Anna Lapkovskaja (Mrs Pašek, Dog), Paulina Malefane, (Forester’s Wife/Owl/Woodpecker), Jonah Halton (Pásek); Peter Sellars (Director), Sir Simon Rattle (Conductor), Ben Zamora (Lighting Designer), Nick Hillel and Adam Smith (Video Design/ Yeast Culture), London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus, LSO Discovery Voices.

Barbican Hall, London; Thursday 27th June 2019.



[1] In Cambridge Opera Journal, vol.22, no.2, 2010.

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