The Cunning Little Vixen: Opera North
Elin Pritchard as Vixen Sharp-Ears © Tristram Kenton
Leoš Janáček was a troubled soul. He was a gifted child but his teachers found him to be a "problematic and wayward student". He was expelled from school and in later life irritated his contemporaries for his sharp criticisms of their work. He found his own work rejected for being "too academic". In Opera North's exciting, tragic and ultimately uplifting production of Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen
there is a feeling that the composer's feisty nature has become visceral.
Janáček was not one for a melody. There are hints of a tune here and there throughout the opera but as soon as an idea becomes established it is whisked off somewhere else: a new idea has arrived, a new colour, the composer has something else to say. It's as though Janáček's skittish mind had been directly translated to semi-quavers on the score sheet. But underlying all this madness there is a serenity: a beautiful story arc describing the passing of the seasons, of birth, life, death, and finally new life. And in the feverishness of Janáček's writing the sheer vigour of nature is writ large for all to see and hear.
This Opera North production is itself a renewal. It is reborn from Scottish Opera and Welsh National Opera productions dating back some 40 years. It retains its earthy and forthright translation by Sir David Poutney, including some remarkable prescient and crowd pleasing politics. Sir David also directs this production.
The stage is set to represent a mound in a woodland where our protagonists play out the cycle of life. The mound is populated with a panoply of creatures; blood-sucking mosquitoes, hens, badgers, owls, jays, woodpeckers, squirrels ... the list goes on ... and provides an opportunity for Opera North to demonstrate its ethos of working as a company. The hare (Siena Christo / Orla Graham) provided both a charming moment and some pathos to the production. The dance roles of The Spirit of the Vixen (Lucy Burns), Dragonfly (Stefanos Dimoulas) and Mosquito (Kamil Bien) added another layer to the richness of the piece.
Elin Pritchard as Vixen Sharp Ears, Campbell Russell as Cockerel, Miranda Bevin as Chief Hen and members of the Chorus of Opera North as Hens © Tristram Kenton
A cameo clutch of clucking chickens (Miranda Bevin, Molly Barker, Gillene Butterfield, Cordelia Fish and Claire Lees) provide both alliteration for reviewers and an entertaining comedy spot halfway through the proceedings.
The Forester (James Rutherford) uses his physical presence and fine baritone to manfully patrol the woodland. His attempts to catch and tame the vixen (delightfully played by Elin Pritchard) come to a sticky end when the poacher Harašta, (Callum Thorpe) kills the vixen. However, our she-fox has been prolific, and the cycle of life continues - providing more opportunity for the excellent ensemble cast - and the performance ends with a rousing welcome for a new season with its abundance of new life.
Claire Pascoe as Innkeeper's Wife, Paul Nilon as Schoolmaster and James Rutherford as Forester © Tristram Kenton
Guest conductor Andrew Gourlay and the ever-reliable orchestra of Opera North work tirelessly to steer the narrative and bring Janáček's difficult music to life.
This could so easily have been a childlike panto of a production - replete, as it is, with cute creatures and gorgeous blossoming Spring flowers - but Janáček's edgy vision of the passing of a generation is well handled here and Opera North and the entire ensemble are to be congratulated on a job well done.
The Cunning Little Vixen
opened on Saturday 4 February 2023 at Leeds Grand Theatre.
Directed by Sir David Pountney, the production is conducted by Andrew Gorlay.
Elin Pritchard takes on the role of Vixen Sharp-Ears alongside Heather Lowe as Fox, with James Rutherford as Forester, Paul Nilon as Schoolmaster and Henry Waddington as Parson.
The production runs in Leeds until Saturday 4 March before touring to Salford Quays, Nottingham, Newcastle and Hull.
Information & Tickets here