Sunday, 4 June 2017

Immersive and thought-provoking: Silent Opera's Vixen

Rosie Lomas (Vixen), Tim Dickinson (Badger) - Silent Opera - Vixen (photo Robert Workman)
Rosie Lomas (Vixen), Tim Dickinson (Badger) - Silent Opera - Vixen (photo Robert Workman)
Janacek, Higgins, Pappenheim, Evans Vixen; Robin Bailey, Tim Dickinson, Ivan Ludlow, Rosie Lomas, Jessie Grimes, Rosanna Ter-Berg, Phillip Granel; Silent Opera at the Vaults
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on June 2 2017
Star rating: 4.0

A radical yet vivid re-invention of Janacek's opera in an immersive setting on the streets of London

Busker in the bar - Silent Opera - Vixen (photo Robert Workman)
Busker in the bar - Silent Opera - Vixen (photo Robert Workman)
We are all crammed into the bar of the Vaults Theatre, Waterloo, and have dutifully put on our headphones. The buskers (Robin Bailey, Tim Dickinson, Jessie Grimes, Rosanna Ter-Berg, Phillip Granell) have segued from improvising on requests from the audience (for a donation dropped into the Crisis collecting bucket) into the prelude to Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen imaginatively re-orchestrated for five instruments. A man (Ivan Ludlow) pushes his way to the bar, orders a drink and starts offering drinks to the people around him, he spots a girl begging (Rosie Lomas). Silent Opera's Vixen at the Vaults (2 June 2017) has begun. (See my recent interview with Daisy Evans, director of Silent Opera)

This is opera at its most immersive, the singers performing right in front of you (or behind you), the audience members often part of the action. The drama moves from the bar to the Forester's house, and finally to the area around Vixen's den, the area on the streets which she has made her own. In each case, the audience follows the singers, sitting down on parts of the set, and at all times the accompaniment follows too, via the live-mixed sound-track on the headphones.

Rosie Lomas - Silent Opera - Vixen (photo Robert Workman)
Rosie Lomas - Silent Opera - Vixen (photo Robert Workman)
Vixen is a radical re-invention of Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen, the accompaniment being provided by a mix of live instruments and a soundtrack which combines Janacek's orchestrations with musical arrangements Max Pappenheim and Stephen Higgins  (musical director of Silent Opera), with David Gregory and Pappenheim being responsible for the sound design. The translation used is by the director, Daisy Evans and is effectively a new version rather than simple translation, transporting Janacek's forest to the streets of modern day London. Ivan Ludlow plays Forester and Rosie Lomas plays Vixen, the other five hard-working performers double as singers, instrumentalists and ushers with Robin Bailey (Fox, Schoolmaster, Pepik, Tenor Sax), Tim Dickinson (Badger, Harasta, Parson, Oboe), Jessie Grimes (Wife, Clarinet), Rosanna Ter-Berg (Dog, Terynka, Flute), Phillip Granell (Frantik, Violin). The highly realistic yet evocative settings are by designer Kitty Callister, with lighting by Jake Wiltsire.

Moving the setting from the forest to the streets of London means taking liberties with the opera, but no more so than some radical productions seen on the main stages of the UK's opera houses. And in fact, the simple fact of turning Janacek's animals into humans means that the relations between the Forester and his friends and the 'animals' (now street people) is one of dominance and oppression, to which Evans has added a sexual element which makes sense but which still shocks if you are still thinking of Janacek's avuncular forester. The musical re-arrangement is just as radical, most of the dialogue is accompanied by Pappenheim and Higgins electronic renderings, or by the live musicians with the full orchestral passages general reserved for the interludes. Again, though this is radical it is no more so than staging Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande with orchestra reduced to piano accompaniment. In my interview with Daisy Evans she explained that with Silent Opera she was keen to be able to keep the orchestral element, and also to perform in found spaces with poor acoustics.

Robin Bailey, Rosie Lomas - Silent Opera - Vixen (photo Robert Workman)
Robin Bailey, Rosie Lomas - Silent Opera - Vixen (photo Robert Workman)
There was a full house the night we were there, and virtually everyone was listening on the headphones, though it was not compulsory. And certainly it is a highly immersive and vividly engaging experience. The singing is an effective compromise between the intimate performance needed by the microphones and operatic projection, and there was also quite a lot of spoken dialogue. In theory I have no objection to this, but in a piece like Vixen it seemed a shame (perhaps a cop-out) when Janacek's musical style was so much based on speech rhythms.

Rosie Lomas made a strong Vixen, vulnerable yet powerful and completely immersed in the role so that there was hardly any disconnect between the drama and our experience. Inevitably Ivan Ludlow's Forester was more of a re-invention, but Ludlow made him entirely believable though it was a shame that the glorious ending was reduced to maudlin reminiscence.

The remaining cast provided superb support, slipping between roles, moving from playing to singing and back again. Robin Bailey's turn as the Fox was particularly notable, creating a strong connection with Lomas's Vixen and making the death scene heart-rending.

Whilst I believed every second of the narrative, as Daisy Evans urged us to in her programme note, I was aware that I was watching drama rather than reality. But to have performed Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen in this setting in an opera house would be at best ham-fisted and would probably come over as patronising, but in this immersive setting in vaults under Waterloo station the staging made perfect sense, and gave us plenty of food for thought afterwards. As Janacek intended, this Vixen wasn't just a cuddly animal story.

Rosie Lomas and audience - Silent Opera - Vixen (photo Robert Workman)
Rosie Lomas and audience - Silent Opera - Vixen (photo Robert Workman)
Whilst I was immersed, gripped and engaged, I was also aware of the losses. Janacek's rapturous depictions of the forest lose something when transferred to street-life in London, and quite simply the closing scenes, whilst imaginative re-inventions, simply lacked the transcendence of Janacek's original. It was a shame that Evans and her team could not have let up on the realism and allowed something of the transcendence in the music to come into the staging.

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