But a narrow miss doesn’t lead to a triumph of a production, I’m afraid.
There is some irony in the fact that the somewhat threadbare and ragged
forest in which this production was set mirrored the paucity of magic and
fantasy one craves for in this opera. I couldn’t really understand why the
woman sat two seats to my left seemed to be helpless with laughter for much
of this production when I found it to be largely oppressive, heavy-handed
and lugubrious. Some rather clumsy on-stage set changes exaggerated this
If there was a strength to The Opera Company’s production then it rested in
Jan·?ek’s more experimental concepts, such as ballet and mime. These
weren’t ideally synchronised – but then neither is nature. Two flies
shadowing one another appeared barely symmetrical but were all-the-more
realistic for it. The clever, quasi-puppetry of the hens was genuinely very
imaginative, and in one of the few instances of light used beyond the glare
of headlight white (in this case a muted red) to imitate death and
blood-letting it seemed momentarily chilling; red ribbon hanging from
severed hen’s heads rippled like streamers of blood. At its worst this
opera can seem very fragmented with its very short scenes and at times the
production really didn’t know what to make of these minimal pieces of
action. It sometimes seemed chaotic, and some entrances felt so brief as to
be almost meaningless. It felt like a little more direction, or just
magical imagination, was all that was needed to lift the values up a notch.
As is so often the case with this opera, the Act II duet between the vixen
and the fox is something of a tour de force. Perhaps the drama and
the tension of the scene, which was really rather splendidly sung by Alison
Rose (Vixen) and Beth Taylor (Fox) risked being undermined by the sheer
cutesiness of their offspring (Jan·?ek really does move this scene along at
a frenetic pace). This was by some measure amongst the most assured singing
of the evening – it had a nuanced balance of warmth and affection between
the two principals that was largely missing elsewhere. Diction was very
fine, something which had been a nagging problem with other singers most of
the evening, despite the libretto having been sung in English and the
cosiness of the venue itself. Olive Gibbs’s Forrester, too, was largely a
resonant and clean performance.
The most controversial, and certainly problematic, part of this production
was the orchestration. Arranged for a piano quintet Jan·?ek’s score largely
felt uncomfortably outside the decade in which it was written – the 1920s.
It’s often alluded to how close this particular score is to some of the
more Romantic late-Strauss operas but the effect here was to quash notions
of Romanticism and instead highlight somewhat darker, more jagged motifs.
Jan·?ek uses woodwind in his full score to captivating effect but a piano
simply doesn’t replicate this. Nor, it should be said, was colour really
highlighted (something that was also emphasised by singers taking on
multiple singing roles). This was a mahogany-hued scoring that was
psychologically dark and sometimes menacing. The reduction did have the
advantage of highlighting the brutalist ostinatos which reflect the less
sentimental approach the composer took over his subject but perceptions of
the opera were largely changed beyond all recognition.
The Opera Company took a major risk in presenting this particular work as
their very first production and in many respects it didn’t quite come off.
Alison Rose (Vixen), Camilla Farrant (Cricket, Frog, Hen, Forrester’s Wife,
Fly, Fox Cub), Beth Taylor (Dog, Hen, Fly, Fox), Tim Langstone (Mosquito,
Rooster, Schoolmaster, Jay), Oliver Gibbs (Forrester), Ashley Mercer
(Badger, Priest, Harasta), Abigail Atttard Monalto and Jade Brider
Guido Martin-Brandis (Direction), Oliver Till (Music Direction), Nina von
Der Werth (Choreography), Alexander McPherson (Set Design).
1st August, Arcola Theatre, London E8.
image_description=The Cunning Little Vixen, Grimeborn at the Arcola Theatre
product_title=The Cunning Little Vixen, Grimeborn at the Arcola Theatre
product_by=A review by Marc Bridle
Photo credit: Robert Workman