The answer is Leoš Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen, which must be the only opera inspired by a cartoon strip and I must confess that until now I have never known quite what to make of it. I have always found Janáček’s other operas hugely impressive and enjoyable. His themes in works such as Jenufa and Katya Kabanova are grim and tragic and his music for them is powerful and appropriate, but it is not easy to find a balance between strong, complex music and a pantomime-like tale of a fox.
Jamie Manton’s new production at ENO, however, hits exactly the right note. The cartoon tone is perfectly struck by a large chorus of children from primary school age upwards in bright costumes depicting everything in the forest from the expected fox cubs to beetles, assorted other insects and frogs and even mushrooms, while on a higher level, the contrast is drawn between nature’s carefree way and the ponderous daily life of humans.
Janáček’s music fits both parts of the story, with the percussion section in the orchestra kept especially busy in the cartoon tale, while the more disturbing philosophical side is matched in a more sombre way. Martyn Brabbins showed great energy and precision in conducting the orchestra to bring out both the fun and the complexity of the music.
The tale starts with a forester, splendidly acted and sung by the baritone Lester Lynch, capturing a young fox and bringing it home as a pet for his children.
As the cub grows up, however, she becomes ever more mischievous, finally freeing herself and escaping via the hen house where she kills the rooster.
The forester vows revenge on the vixen, but by the time she meets her end, she has met a male fox and produced a litter of cubs of her own to replace her. It’s all good Lion King, Circle of Life stuff, but the music is much more profound than Disney’s.
The role of the grown-up Vixen was beautifully played by Sally Matthews, whom I have long admired as perhaps the best and most reliable British soprano.
Her pointy-ears seemed to bring out the best in her sharp, foxy movements and her voice was perfect for the part. It was good to see her finding time in her international commitments to come to thrill us at the ENO.
The South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza made an excellent ENO debut as her mate and the pair were delightfully convincing as a loving couple.
Generally, the design of the production resisted the temptation to be too pantomime-like, though the costume of the Foresters’ hugely fat family dog seemed to overdo it. I did, however, manage to speak to a few of the small children in the audience afterwards, and they all seemed very happy and expressed their enjoyment of the production.
The Cunning Little Vixen at the English National Opera until 1st March.
Published at Wed, 23 Feb 2022 15:13:34 +0000