OPERA NORTH’S THE CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN at Leeds Grand on Feb 6th 2023 and LITTLE LISTENERS’ MINI-VIXEN at Doncaster Cast on Feb 4th 2023

OPERA NORTH’S THE CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN at Leeds Grand on Feb 6th 2023 and LITTLE LISTENERS’ MINI-VIXEN at Doncaster Cast on Feb 4th 2023

It’s a somewhat bizarre concoction is Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen. The starting point for the work came a hundred years ago when the illustrated tales of a mischievous vixen appeared in the composer’s local paper. Instead of just replicating the light-hearted “happy ever after” ending, though, Janacek got musing on manmade complications – personal, philosophical and socio-political – stirring their parallels and contrasts into Nature’s world via songs, operatic dialogue, ballet and movement and a magnificent orchestral score.

In episodic scenes and in handsome visual tableaux the tale of the forester and vixen unfolds: like much of mankind the forester is set on dominating and subduing Nature and he takes home a fox cub, keeping it captive in discomfort and neglect. Determined to be free, the grown vixen uses feisty feminism to incite the harem of brightly-clad, pecking, clucking hens to rebel against the cockerel – then she kills the lot of them and escapes. On she goes to denounce an old badger as a rich capitalist, evict him from his home and take it for herself. She’s a bit of a one.

Maria Bjornson’s lovely set celebrates the beauty of Nature with far-off dark hills in glorious silhouette and branches artistically suspended against a blue sky, representing the passing seasons. The hues of landscape and creatures blend in pleasing harmony, white sheets arriving in winter, parasol daisies in spring. Iggle-Piggle and the Teletubbies would feel right at home. Comprising a mass of undulating hills, the set elevates the action high above stage level – great for spectators though challenging for dance and movement sequences as there’s no flat expanse. A space opens below, though, when the hefty sections slide aside to create the forester’s bare home and the inn.

In costumes that are not blatant animal “outfits” the creatures of the forest bring constant, busy entertainment across the rolling landscape – and above it. Ballet dancers portray a silvery dragonfly and The Spirit of the Vixen, though for the most part, the delicate elegance of woodland creatures is represented by chunkier human life-forms and by some disconcertingly large flies and mosquitoes on poles. Disconcerting, too, are the substantial chairs bearing human cargoes, suspended way on high, appearing and disappearing as light-winged birds!

As the cycles and dramas of life and death in Nature play out in frogs, birds, hens, fox cubs, badger, a caterpillar with a concertina and a cricket with strings, we also consider the lives, loves, losses, lust and longings of a schoolmaster, a parson and our grumpy forester, three melancholy middle-aged men full of lament, bitter regret, frustration and disillusion – a sorry bunch. Yet their fine singing and delivery bring nothing but delight, courtesy of Paul Nilon, Henry Waddington, Richard Burhard, and Callum Thorpe as the poacher, and, by the end at least, the forester, with new spiritual insight, realises humans should live in harmony with Nature. The voices of Elin Pritchard as the Vixen and Heather Lowe as the Fox she marries likewise delight, especially in their duet, while the Opera North orchestra, under the waving baton of Andrew Gourlay, is superb in its performance of Janacek’s magnificent score. The composer may give scant tuneful melody and lyricism to the voice parts, and the clunky language of the libretto is often particularly unbeautiful, especially with added modern slang, but the orchestra has all that is lovely. Infused with Moravian folk music and rhythms that reflect Janacek’s studies of bird-calls, the instruments flow through a colossal range of textures, tones and melody, conjuring moods and emotions from lively and joyous or comic to tranquil or mournful and tragic.

The Cunning Little Vixen, with its fairy-tale woodland characters and shorter length, is often seen as a great introduction to opera for children. Now a new little work, Little Listeners’ Mini-Vixen, has been devised especially for 4-12 year-olds. Full of polish and professionalism, this is currently touring as part of Opera North’s programme that reaches out more broadly to communities. Hand-puppetry, imaginative costumes, a simple woodland set, audience participation and superb singing, acting and musicianship make this a lovely, lively production, just over half an hour long. In a simplified version of the story we travel from jolly, dancing capers to sadder moments as the vixen and Grumpy Old Joe, the farmer, spring to life and eventually lead us again to the realisation that man must work with Nature, not against it. Again the music rides high as a fabulously exciting, scintillating pairing of fiddle and accordion amazes and delights onstage, accompanying the expressive acting, the rhyming couplets and m
agnificent operatic tones of the singers. The breadth of volume, atmosphere and textures that the two instruments combine to create is phenomenal.

Eileen Caiger Gray

You can find out more information on The Cunning Little Vixen by following this link and on Little Listeners Mini-Vixen by following this link.