Sunday 25 July 2021

Janacek's forest could easily be on a London estate around the corner from the theatre: The Cunning Little Vixen at Opera Holland Park

Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - Jennifer France - Opera Holland Park, 2021 (Photo Ali Wright)
Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - Jennifer France - Opera Holland Park, 2021 (Photo Ali Wright)

Janacek The Cunning Little Vixen; Jennifer France, Grant Doyle, Julia Sporsen, dir: Stephen Barlow, City of London Sinfonia, cond: Jessica Cottis; Opera Holland Park

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 July 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
An imaginative yet stripped down production in which Janacek's music is allowed to work its magic

Opera Holland Park's new production of Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen continued the company's exploration of Janacek's operas, and we caught up with the production on Friday 23 July 2021. Jessica Cottis conducted the City of London Sinfonia in Jonathan Dove's orchestral reduction, and Stephen Barlow's production featured Jennifer France as the Vixen, Grant Doyle as the Forester, Julia Sporsen as the Fox plus Ann Taylor (Forester's Wife, Owl), Charne Rochford (Schoolmaster, Mosquito), John Savournin (Priest, Badger), and Ashley Riches (Poacher).

There are a number of ways to approach Janacek's opera and its world. The composer based it on a comic strip and created a vivid and numinous sense of the natural world, yet interleaved this with the rather sad stories of the humans involved, the two coming together in the magical finale. Complicating this is the way Janacek anthropomorphises the animals, which leads us to ask what is the world of the forest?

This is a question each director has to ask, whether we go full cutesy with a high degree of pictorial naturalism or completely gritty with the forest replaced by a realistic modern world (such as Silent Opera's Vixen set on the streets of London). Most productions choose to hover between the two and Stephen Barlow's imaginatively stripped back production (with designs by Andrew D Edwards) managed to give us plenty of food for thought. The traditional doublings were used, so that the human and animal world was interweavoven and Barlow introduced an extra doubling, with Jennifer France (who plays the Vixen) playing the silent role of Terynka, the local flame-haired beauty who seduces all the men of the village. She ends up marrying the Poacher (Ashley Riches) who shoots the Vixen. And in this production we actually saw Terynka with her new fox-fur stole, rather than just having it described, thus bringing the chain full circle.

Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - Opera Holland Park, 2021 (Photo Ali Wright)
Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - Estella Charlesworth in the foreground with Grant Doyle, Jennifer France, Jessica Cottis, City of London Sinfonia - Opera Holland Park, 2021 (Photo Ali Wright)

Animals wore masks or head-dresses, yet with clothes which referenced both human and animal world. There were hardly any props, and what there were were simple and modern, a plastic rubbish recycling bin, some bags from Pret a Manger (!) and the seating for the Inn. And that was it. For the opening scene, the creatures of the forest played by the children's chorus all wore coloured masks and matching clothes, and ran around with colourful wind-socks. The results evoked both the forest but also a street of playing children. By taking advantage of the stripped back nature of the production, Barlow and Edwards were able to create a sort of complex double projection, this was the forest but it was also a London council estate.

Essentially, Barlow asked us to use our imagination and use Janacek's music to populate this world. Central to this idea was doing the opera effectively in the round (there were audience members on the main stage) with a playing area all around the orchestra, which was the focus of the whole. During the Vixen's dream she does not have an image of herself as a young human girl (as specified in the libretto), of freedom or the moon or whatever, but her younger self (Estella Charlesworth) shows her the orchestra which was brilliantly illuminated, creating a piece of very real theatrical magic. The production was full of such imaginative touches, establishing that we were really in a theatre and it was up to we the audience to help create the magic.

Central to this was the glorious performance from Jessica Cottis and the City of London Sinfonia. With just 19 players, they really made Jonathan Dove's imaginative orchestral reduction count, making this almost large-scale chamber music with lots of interacting, beautifully shaped lines. I would love to hear Cottis conduct the full version, but here there was no sense of missing out, this was richly imaginative, gorgeously coloured and brought Janacek's world alive.

Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - Grant Doyle - Opera Holland Park, 2021 (Photo Ali Wright)
Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - Grant Doyle - Opera Holland Park, 2021 (Photo Ali Wright)

Another advantage of reducing the orchestra is that it gives less of a challenge to the singers. We want the Vixen to have a suitably light, youthful voice yet she needs to be able to carry well over the orchestra with a style of agility plus cutting edge which is perhaps somewhat old-fashioned today. (It is worth considering that Richard Strauss' first Zerbinetta in the 1912 Ariadne auf Naxos also created the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier in 1911!). 

Here, with fewer instruments Jennifer France's Vixen carried wonderfully and she brought a mixture of wit, charm and edge to the role. It was clear that this Vixen was strong minded, yet she seduced too (both us and the Forester). This was a finely rounded account of the role and we were certainly rooting for her so that the death scene was a total shock. The Opera Holland Park theatre is quite a bit space, but France filled it effortlessly with her big personality Vixen. Grant Doyle's impressively resonant Forester was very human and completely believable, rough but underneath it still seduced by the Vixen. There was a frank and open sense to his portrayal and rather naughtily, I half wished he'd used an accent from his native Australia for the character. His final scene had a lovely robustness to it, with no hint of sentimentality, just a magical contemplation of the forest. 

Around these two were a strong array of characters. Janacek writes characterful vignettes rather than developing characters, it is the totality which is most important. Julia Sporsen swaggered and engaged as the Fox, from their vivid first encounter to her shocked bleakness at the Vixen's death. The humans, particularly in the inn scenes with Charne Rochford's Schoolmaster and John Savournin's Priest, were gently humorous and very human rather than being overly melancholy. Ann Taylor made a delightfully sharp Forester's wife, with Ashley Riches as a charmingly swaggering Poacher.

The scene with the hens was great fun, with Harriet Eyley (who sings the title role at the performanceon 25 July) as Chocholka. Many of the smaller roles were played by members of the Opera Holland Park chorus, so Grace Nyandoro was the affronted Rooster with Natasha Agarwal as the melancholy dog, plus Chloe Pardoe as the Woodpecker, Yolanda Grant-Thompson as the Innkeeper's wife, Phillip Costovski as the Innkeeper, Clare Ward as Frantik,  and Alys Meredid Roberts as Pepik.

The opera was sung in English, though sometimes the words got lost in the auditorium but it was an admirable effort to make the piece far more accessible, particularly with a chorus of children and the children's chorus certainly gave good value here.

Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - Julia Sporsen, Jennifer France - Opera Holland Park, 2021 (Photo Ali Wright)
Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - Julia Sporsen, Jennifer France - Opera Holland Park, 2021 (Photo Ali Wright)

This was an imaginative and entrancing evening, but one with an edge to it too, the sense that Janacek's forest could easily be on a London estate around the corner from the theatre. But what counts is the music, and that was magical from the opening notes to the glorious final pages.

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