There is nothing conventional about Vixen. The composer constructed the libretto himself from a newspaper serial about forest animals. There are no 'stand and deliver' arias which could provide theme songs for football tournaments. It calls itself a comedy but it is a profound contemplation of birth, love, death and the miracle of hope replacing despair, grief giving way to renewal.
Its chief glory is the endlessly inventive orchestral score, over which are laid the voices of the chattering humans and animals – so much so, that it could almost be described as an orchestral piece with voices, rather than an opera.
It is this aspect – an orchestral piece with voices – which the director, Stephen Barlow, has chosen to emphasise. There is no set and, using OHP’s new runway to the maximum (a runway designed by takis and which OHP should seriously consider making permanent), Barlow places the orchestra literally at the centre of the action, even putting a few rows of audience on stage in a nod to a theatre-in-the-round style.
Sunrise for the Vixen and Fox, with the help of Opera Holland Park Chorus. Photo: Ali Wright
Janáček takes a tough, uncompromising look at life and nature – the Vixen of the title joyfully kills rabbits and factory-farmed chickens, chases the Badger out of his home and bites back hard when beaten. It is a pity that Barlow toned down some of the toughness, going instead for easy laughs when the chickens just have their balloon-eggs popped by the Vixen or when the Fox arrives to woo the Vixen not with a dead rabbit but with sandwiches from a well-known chain.
The opera begins with a humming, swooning prelude conjuring up a hot, lazy afternoon in the forest, and Barlow filled the theatre with dragonfly children, entering through the audience and waving colourful long-tailed kites on bendy poles. The other animals began to appear, costumed (by Andrew D Edwards) in mostly human garb with paper masks to suggest their animal identities.
Some of the animals wore pantaloons made from rags to suggest feathers or fur, reminiscent of the swans in Mathew Bourne’s Swan Lake. It all looked worryingly homespun: where was the magic going to come from?
Jennifer France as the Vixen captivated from the moment she appeared, embodying a life-force untrammelled by human doubts and regrets and singing gloriously. Her love duet with the similarly full-throated Julia Sporsén, as the Fox, was one of the highlights of the evening.
The Children's Chorus of The Cunning Little Vixen. Photo: Ali Wright
Another was the moment when the Vixen is captured by the Forester. He takes her home and ties her up, and her longing to be free is expressed in one of Janáček’s most moving orchestral interludes. During it, Barlow had her freed from her bondage and led to the edge of the orchestra pit where she was transfixed by the City of London Sinfonia, flooded with stage-light and playing as if their souls depended on it. In a world where we can no longer take live music-making for granted, this was intensely moving.
The other star of the show was the Australian conductor, Jessica Cottis, a BBC Proms regular making her OHP debut. As much at home driving forward the rhythmical passages of this mosaic-like score as letting its lyrical sections soar, she ensured that Jonathan Dove’s 1998 chamber version of the score (requiring just 19 players rather than a full orchestra) provided the same emotional punch as a full orchestra.
All the human characters in the Vixen lead unhappy, unfulfilled lives but all were strongly sung and characterised by the OHP cast, from mezzo-soprano Ann Taylor as the harassed Forester’s wife (and unrecognisable as a prudish Owl), to Charne Rochford’s muscular tenor as the Schoolmaster (although no attempt had been made to age him into the dried-up old stick about to give up on life that’s described in the libretto) and bass-baritone John Savournin’s gentle Priest and Badger (both made homeless during the course of the action).
A vividly sung Poacher came from bass-baritone Ashley Riches, stepping into the role at last minute.
The Vixen meets her match in Ashley Riches as the Poacher. Photo: Ali Wright
Baritone Grant Doyle looked every inch the Forester and was fully up to the demands of the glorious final scene when (spoiler alert!) he returns to the forest after the Poacher has shot the Vixen. It is autumn but he looks forward to spring and life returning and he’s consoled when he sees a fox cub who’s the image of her mother – another cunning little vixen is on the way.
Stage lighting for productions at an open-air venue like OHP is often problematic but lighting designer Rory Beaton triumphed in this scene. An autumn sunset was created when he washed the steel bars of the lighting rig itself with a rosy glow, then threw a translucent light like a summer sky onto the canopy over the audience’s heads.
As Janáček’s final orchestral apotheosis filled the air, the children returned as fireflies, their long-tailed kites swirling throughout the theatre, encouraging us to hope. The magic had arrived.
The Cunning Little Vixen is sung in Czech, with English surtitles. Performances are on 15, 17, 21, 23, 25, 28, 30 July. Click here for tickets. Click here to register for returns for sold-out performances. Click here for side seats, released on sale every Monday for that week's performances
|What||The Cunning Little Vixen, Opera Holland Park review|
|Where||Opera Holland Park, Stable Yard, Holland Park, London , W8 6LU | MAP|
|Nearest tube||High Street Kensington (underground)|
13 Jul 21 – 30 Jul 21, Eight performances
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|