The Cunning Little Vixen – Birmingham Hippodrome

Composer and Libretto: Leoš Janáček

Conductor: Tomáš Hanus

Director: David Pountney

Reviewer: C L Delft

Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen had its genesis in a comic-strip printed in a Czech newspaper in the early 1920s: an ongoing tale about the adventures of a clever she-fox.  In creating his opera, the composer transcended this very simple material to produce a multi-faceted work that has been variously considered a children’s opera, a comic opera, a tragicomedy or even a straightforward tragedy. However it may finally be labelled, there is no denying the unsettling power of a work that combines playfulness with serious intent as we accompany Vixen Sharp Ears on her life-cycle, starting with her abduction as a cub by the Forester, her eventual escape and ruthless sequestering of the old Badger’s home, her meeting and courtship with the Fox, leading to ‘marriage’, motherhood and finally to her eventual death at the hands of a poacher – an event we are encouraged to see less as an avoidable event so much as part of the renewing cycle of life.

David Pountney’s 1980 production, here revived by Elaine Tyler-Hall, is now of an age when it ought to be called ‘venerable’ – and perhaps some of the props and costumes (particularly for the younger singers) do have a late-twentieth-century T.I.E. look about them.  But the ideas that underpin it still have vitality and provide several moments of pure theatre – notably, when the change of the season from winter to spring is effected by the ‘magical’ removal of the white sheets that had signified snow to reveal the green rolling plains of the countryside!  The late Maria Bjornson’s versatile set, which allows the action to travel from the wide-open spaces of the forest to a number of interior locations (the Forester’s house, a chicken coop, an inn) facilitates the swift-moving action while also accommodating the composer’s more reflective moments. 

Leading a uniformly strong cast, Aoife Miskelly is a splendidly balletic and convincing Vixen, carefully plotting the character’s development from the unsuccessfully domesticated creature of the first scenes to the confident predator of the finale.  The genius of the character (and of the portrayal) is in how closely it resembles that of an archetypal young woman of any times, moving from adolescent curiosity about sex, to maturity and motherhood.  The extended love duet in the Second Act, between the Vixen and her amorous suitor, the Fox (a convincingly masculine Lucia Cervoni) may be the strangest in all opera.  Elsewhere, there is depth from the human contingent: Claudio Otelli deploys his resonant baritone to moving effect as the Forester and Peter Van Hulle is both comedic and moving as a lovesick Schoolmaster.  Some marvellous vocal cameos also from Wojtek Gerlach as the Parson and Laurence Cole as the extremely pompous (and speedily evicted) Badger. 

 In the pit, Tomas Hanus shows flair and mastery in Janáček’s distinctive idiom – the composer’s hallmark style of building up themes from the repetition of tiny motifs is unmistakeable – and the orchestra responds well, with just a few moments of slightly ragged ensemble from the horns.  Unusually for a British production, the libretto is given in the original Czech, a definite plus given that Janáček was careful to base his text on the rhythms he observed in ordinary Czech speech. 

Reviewed on 7 November 2019 and on tour                     Image: Richard Hubert Smith

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