Janáček and Těsnohlídek
Grand Theatre, Leeds
4 February - 4 March 2023: 2 hours 15 minutes
The only mainstream opera to be based on a newspaper cartoon strip – and one of the few to have both singing animals and humans in its line-up – The Cunning Little Vixen is a beautiful piece of writing and rewarding to see in the theatre.
It’s quite short, as operas go; and its musical language is magical, evoking the life of the countryside and telling the story of one young vixen, briefly captured by a Forester and encountering his wife, his randy farm dog and his cockerel and chickens (whom she invites to strike a blow for female emancipation – in vain – and finally slaughters) before meeting the love of her life and raising a family with him. Finally, after many escapes, she is shot by the Forester, but her brood continues the cycle of life. There’s a sub-plot, too, setting the frustrated love-lorn longings of the village parson and schoolmaster, and the local poacher’s romance with the schoolmaster’s sweetheart, as a contrast to the simple, instinctive actions of the animals. And at the end the Forester himself muses on the inevitability of ageing and death, and the continuing force of nature.
All human, and animal, life is there. Janáček paints with deft strokes and packs so much into his mature masterpiece (written in his sixties) that the time flies by as you see it performed. And this production has the status of a classic: it was first seen at the Edinburgh Festival in 1980, done by Scottish Opera in a joint enterprise with Welsh National Opera, and has often been repeated since.
Opera North invited its director, Sir David Pountney (also the translator of the English text it uses), to recreate it for their programme, and it suits them well, calling for a company with a team of gifted actor-singers at its disposal, plus dancers, child performers, and of course the resources to bring to life the imaginative set and costumes created by Maria Björnson, and the necessary army backstage to get everyone made up and into their roles.
The staging catches the vividly pictorial quality and fun of the opera’s inspiration, and the words, seen on side-titles just in case you don’t catch every one of them by hearing, are full of neat social commentary. It will surely appeal to children as much as adults, and one of each pair of performances scheduled for its tour after Leeds will be a schools matinee.
Andrew Gourlay – a former Hallé assistant conductor to Sir Mark Elder – makes his debut in the theatre pit for Opera North with this production, and draws colourful and characterful playing from the orchestra in a score that’s full of the sounds of nature as well as tender affection. The minor roles – there are many of them, including the farm dog, cockerel, several hens and a badger (quite apart from the various insects, birds and other denizens of the forest played by children) – are beautifully sung, and in the main parts Opera North have found a starry team indeed. Elin Pritchard leads them with a lively but richly-toned interpretation of the Vixen herself; the bright soprano of Heather Lowe is well paired with her as the Fox; James Rutherford has presence and the vocal power to be a impressive Forester; Henry Waddington (the Parson) and Paul Nilon (the Schoolmaster) bring their experience and depth of characterization, and Callum Thorpe is a slightly suspicious-looking but not unsympathetic Poacher.
Further performances are in Salford (7 & 8 March), Nottingham (14 & 15 March), Newcastle (21 & 22 March) and Hull (29 & 31 March).