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The Cunning Little Vixen

by on 21 February 2022

Slightly Foxed

The Cunning Little Vixen

by Leoš Janáček

English National Opera at the London Coliseum until 1st March

Review by Andrew Lawston

Unavoidably delayed due to Storm Eunice, the English National Opera’s new production of Leoš Janàček’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen is a visual riot of fantastical costumes and inventive staging, and of course a feast for the ears.  As soon as the ENO Orchestra begins tuning up, the windswept West End outside becomes a distant memory.  The Coliseum is the perfect venue for this production, as former musical director Sir Charles Mackerras was credited with introducing Janàček’s music to English audiences.

In this deceptively slight tale, a young vixen is captured by a Forester and raised in a human house.  Her upbringing isn’t happy, and she eventually escapes into the woods to start a new life, outwitting humans and other animals alike.

Directed with flair by Jamie Manton, the opera is staged with movable wooden flats, piles of logs, and an endlessly unfurling illustrated banner that unrolls on the stage throughout the performance.  The combination of Anya Allin’s illustrations with David Allen’s flexible set design, along with evocative lighting design from Lucy Carter and Gabriel Finn, creates a constantly shifting world through which the characters move.

The human world and the woods are shown in striking contrast, as the human characters are clothed in drably monochrome costumes, while the animals come alive in vibrant creations from designer Tom Scutt.  Soprano Sally Matthews wears the most distinctive costume as Vixen, and she plays the part with great physicality, swaggering and bounding over the stage.  But the biggest audience reaction is reserved for John Findon’s flamboyant Rooster, and his retinue of Hens.

The wit that pervades the production is more than matched by Janàček’s libretto.  The Vixen – Sharp Ears – causes mayhem with gleeful relish as she evicts Badger from his sett and sets about the henhouse, but she also reveals a wonderfully prudish side, complaining about the morality of the local starlings, and insisting on a swift marriage after she falls in love with Fox (soprano Pumeza Matshikiza) towards the end of Part One.

Similarly baritone Lester Lynch’s splendid Forester breaks the fourth wall on a couple of occasions to complain about his life story being turned into an opera.  Humour is notoriously difficult to translate, and it’s to the credit of translators Yveta Synek Graf and Robert T Jones that this production raises several genuine laughs from the audience.

With at least two generations of foxes, there’s also a distinct “circle of life” flavour to the woodland scenes, and both Sharp Ears and Forester have truly magical moments where they interact with their younger selves.  By the end, many of the human characters have moved on, and much of the forest has been destroyed in a logging operation, but the Forester looks on as a new generation of animals begins to reclaim their habitat.

Martyn Brabbins conducts an orchestra full of insistent violins, mournful woodwind, and light percussion, bringing huge energy to the Moravian folk songs which apparently greatly influenced Janàček’s work.  The folk influence runs throughout the opera and gives the production a truly distinctive sound.

Within the space of just two hours, The Cunning Little Vixen is funny, melancholy, philosophical and whimsical.  With a healthy number of families among the audience, the performance succeeded in enthralling spectators of all ages.

Andrew Lawston, February 2022

Photography by Clive Barda

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