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Reviews

11 Oct 2019

Welsh National Opera revive glorious Cunning Little Vixen

First unveiled in 1980, this celebrated WNO production shows no sign of running out of steam. Thanks to director David Pountney and revival director Elaine Tyler-Hall, this Vixen has become a classic, its wide appeal owing much to the late Maria Bjørnson’s colourful costumes and picture book designs (superbly lit by Nick Chelton) which still gladden the eye after nearly forty years with their cinematic detail and pre-echoes of Teletubbies.

Janáček: The Cunning Little Vixen, Welsh National Opera, Millennium Centre, Cardiff

A review by David Truslove

Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith

 

Alongside masterly direction, Janáček’s vibrant score was fabulously well served by the WNO orchestra on opening night, and the array of impressive performances on stage was especially memorable for the talent of award-winning northern Irish soprano Aiofe Miskelly in the title role.

With a libretto based on the exploits of a wily fox illustrated in a Brno newspaper in 1920, Janáček’s opera offers a refreshingly simple plot in which a young vixen is captured by the local Forester. After killing his hens, she escapes, marries, rears a family and, in a moment of provocation, is shot by a poacher. While this is no cosy fireside fable, its bittersweet fairy-tale world is filled with larger than life woodland creatures whose brief lives are inextricably linked with their human counterparts. It engages on several levels, firstly in the symbiotic connection between man and nature, and secondly in the relationships between animal and human that generate a deeper commentary on the cycle of life and death and the inevitability of renewal. Of this universal and timeless reality Janáček would have been acutely aware when he began composing the work just two years before his seventieth birthday. To this ‘personal meditation on the brevity and fragility of existence’, to borrow from Philip Ross Bullock’s programme article, the composer responds with music of intense lyricism and restlessness.

Beyond the pantomime-like caterpillar (complete with concertina), cricket and dragonfly are themes of sexual awakening, regret and time passing that underpin a work Janáček referred to in a letter to his muse Kamilla Stösslová as ‘a merry thing with a sad end’. This tragic aspect is leavened by the arrival of new beginnings, so touchingly delivered near the end when the Forester meets a grandchild of a frog encountered in Act One and one of the vixen’s daughters - both poignant moments of vanishing youth. Not far from its jaunty and simultaneous pastoral surface are subsidiary ideas on freedom, socialism and the empowering of women - wittily dealt with when the vixen dreams of freedom, scolds the hens for their subservience to the cockerel, and later evicts an indolent badger from his sett.

Vixen Aoife Miskelly.jpgAoife Miskelly (Vixen). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

The whole is amply thought-provoking, but its concepts are all conveyed with a light brush. For those who are persuaded by spectacle, there’s plenty; this visual feast repeatedly draws the eye to silhouetted hills (set against deep blues and pinks), patchwork quilt landscapes (snowy sheets reminding us of the harshness of nature) and cutaway dwellings for the Forester’s cottage and local pub where the ageing schoolmaster and priest share lost opportunities. Gossiping birds suspended from the ceiling tell tales of other creatures in the community, one condemning a starling’s promiscuous daughter for being ‘a filthy slapper’. The massacre of the hens (dressed as charwomen) is brutal and the shower of red leaves as each one is slaughtered is a nice imaginative touch.

If sparkling wit and charm provide atmosphere for this production, it’s driven by a strong cast including some well drilled school children. Above all, it’s Aiofe Miskelly as the feisty vixen Bystrouška whose clear-toned soprano and gleeful presence is a perfect match for this role and equally convincing whether brazen or maternal. Hers was a portrayal glowing with humanity and if she overshadowed Lucia Cervoni’s eager fox, their duet was a special joy. Claudio Otelli, as the Forester warmed to his role and gave an impassioned closing soliloquy as he fondly recalled his younger self. There was much to enjoy too from Peter van Hulle’s lonely Schoolmaster, Wojtek Gierlach’s dignified Parson and David Stout’s unsentimental poacher. A host of fox cubs, creatures winged and of the four-legged variety also left their mark.

Down in the pit Tomáš Hanus directed his WNO forces with flair, bringing out the score’s vivid detail and energy, allowing individual players their moments in the sun, yet keenly alert to balance. In short, it’s a must-see production bursting with life.

David Truslove

Janáček: The Cunning Little Vixen

Bystrouška - Aiofe Miskelly, Forester - Claudio Otelli, Fox - Lucia Cervoni, Poacher - David Stout, Schoolmaster - Peter Van Hulle, Parson - Wotjek Gairloch, Forester’s Wife - Kezia Bienek, Innkeeper - Martin Lloyd, Innkeeper’s Wife - Sarah Pope, Badger - Laurence Cole; Director - David Pountney, Conductor - Tomáš Hanus, Associate Director and Revival Choreographer - Elaine Tyler-Hall, Designer - Maria Bjørnson, Lighting Designer - Nick Chelton, Original Choreographer - Stuart Hopps, Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera.

Millennium Centre, Cardiff; Saturday 5th October 2019.

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