Thursday 4 September 2014

Summer in the Co-opera forest: Cunning little vixen

The Cunning Little Vixen With Zoe Perman Baldwin, Kathleen Cronie and Robyn Allegra Parton - Co-Opera Co
Zoe Perman Baldwin, Kathleen Cronie and Robyn Allegra Parton
In April Planet Hugill helped spread the word about the Co-opera Company's development programme which aims bring together experienced professionals and young singers just starting out in their careers, providing a kind of apprenticeship. The culmination of the summer course is a full opera - this year a delightful production of 'The Cunning Little Vixen' by Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) at the John McIntosh Theatre directed by Natascha Metherell.

Although Janáček wrote his first opera 'Šárka' in 1887-8, it was towards the last years of his life that he really turned to this art form, including (in 1921-3) 'The Cunning Little Vixen'(Příhody lišky Bystroušky or The adventures of the vixen Sharp-Ears). Janáček based the libretto on an illustrated story in the newspaper Lidové noviny by author Rudolf Těsnohlídek and artist Stanislav Lolek. It is also thought to draw on his own experiences of unrequited love and a reflection on the increasing wisdom of age and the cycle of life.

The Cunning Little Vixen with Steff Smith, Co-Opera Co
Steff Smith
Co-opera are following in a long tradition started in 1961 by the Sadler's Wells Opera Company when 'The Cunning Little Vixen' received its first London performance. Translation into English by David Poutney in the 1980's has brought this whimsical (I shrink from calling it childish) tale into the hearts of many an opera-goer. Often called the most lyrical of Janáček's operas the music supports and drives the story along.

I say not childish because, although the animals were definitely cute in this performance, they were also allegorical and the opera touches on complex subjects such as rape, slavery and socialism. Our furry heroine is not nice. The vixen, in typical fox-in-a-hen-house fashion, kills all the forester's chickens, takes over another animal's den, and lords over the humans even as they lay traps to catch her.

More people took part in the scheme than there were characters, so each night had a different cast. On Saturday (23rd August) evening the vixen and her fox were performed by Robyn Allegra Parton and Tanya Hurst, with Chi Wang Chen playing the young vixen. The young singers were perfect for the roles with clear diction and tight control of their voices without the heaviness of voice which can come with age. Robyn and Tanya definitely stole the show in their scenes together; the gleam in Tanya's eyes was delightful. Robyn was mesmerising and mischievous throughout making the fox lovable despite its nature.

The Cunning Little Vixen with Robyn Allegra Parton, Joanna Harries, Tom Asher, Alexandra Dinwiddie and Laura Curry.
Robyn Allegra Parton, Joanna Harries,
Tom Asher, Alexandra Dinwiddie & Laura Curry
On the minimal stage, making use of black umbrellas for bushes and trees, the supporting cast of singers and dancers (or singers who were also dancers) were all outstanding even though I'm not entirely sure who they were all playing. The dancing choreographed by Maria Yacoob during instrumental interludes was stylised, but with nice touches such as the reflection of one of the girls (possibly the jay as she was dressed in blue) in a pond.

The gypsy Terynka (Abbi Temple), who is the (unrequited) love interest, is the alter ego of the vixen. In this production the parallel was underscored by being dressed in the same colours and Terynka had a furry collar to match the vixen's ears. The other humans were all fallible and world weary and very believable in their narrow-mindedness. The forester (baritone Tom Asher) had a major part in setting the scene for the fox's shenanigans and providing a frame for the major theme of the opera.

The Cunning Little Vixen with  Robyn Allegra Parton and Tanya Hurst - Co-Opera Co
Robyn Allegra Parton and Tanya Hurst
Andy Armistead was great as the put upon as harried badger who is thrown out of his home by the vixen, and the scenes with the chickens were very amusing. I was less convinced by using clothes on hangers for the fox cubs. But I think this was in part due to their role in the story – they behave as the mother of the vixen undermining her independent wiliness by telling her to be wary of traps – which grated rather than the interpretation of puppets.

Conducted by Martin Handley, the music was deftly performed by two unnamed pianists hidden beneath the stage who had the unenviable task of being an entire orchestra. Pre-performance and during the interval they provided a bit of extra music to keep everyone in the mood.

The co-opera development programme's next production is The Mikado in April 2015.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

VIXEN Robyn Allegra Parton
GYPSY Abbi Temple
FOX Tanya Hurst
HARAŠTA Ashley Mercer
DOG Lisa Coates
COCK Francesca Matta
PARSON Andy Armistead
FORESTER'S WIFE Joanna Harries
INNKEEPER'S WIFE Kathleen Cronie
BADGER Andy Armistead
FRANTIK Heather Heighway
PEPIK Zoe Perman
JAY Stephanie Smith
MOSQUITO Jayne Carmichael Norrie
OWL Laura Curry
WOODPECKER Charlotte Osborn
FROG Maria Preibsch Vidal
CRICKET Camilla Jeppeson

Alexandra Dinwiddie
Alice Usher
Camilla Jeppeson
Kathleen Cronie
Laura Curry
Sarah McInerney

Alexandra Dinwiddie
Alice Usher
Charlotte Osborn
Chi Wang Chen
Jayne Carmichael Norrie
Joanna Harries
Laura Clark
Lisa Coates
Maria Preibsch Vidal
Stephanie Smith
Zoe Perman

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