Wednesday 23 February 2022

The cycle of life: Jamie Manton's new production of Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen at English National Opera

Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - Pumeza Matshikiza, Sally Matthews - ENO (Photo Clive Barda)
Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - Pumeza Matshikiza, Sally Matthews
ENO (Photo Clive Barda)

Janacek The Cunning Little Vixen; Sally Matthew, Lester Lynch, Pumeza Matshikiza, Alan Oke, Clive Bayley, Ossian Huskinson

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 February 2022 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Jamie Manton's deliberately low-fi production successfully mixes a sense of melancholy with the feeling of the cycle of life, enlivened by a strong central performance from Sally Matthews

Director Jamie Manton had never seen a production of Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen prior to being asked to direct the new production for English National Opera (ENO) at the London Coliseum. This meant that he brought a remarkable lack of preconceptions to the work. Manton, who directed the wonderfully inventive outdoor production of Verdi's La Traviata at Nevill Holt Opera last year [see my review], showed a similar imagination in filling the wide open spaces of the Coliseum stage. The production's planned first night was cancelled owing to the storm on Friday, so we caught Jamie Manton's production of Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen at ENO on Tuesday 22 February 2022. Martyn Brabbins conducted, with Sally Matthews as the Vixen, Lester Lynch as the Forester, Pumeza Matshikiza as the Fox, Alan Oke as the Schoolmaster and the Mosquito, Clive Bayley as the Priest and the Badger, Ossian Huskinson as Harasta. Designs were by Tom Scutt, with illustrations by Anya Allin, lighting by Lucy Carter and movement by Jenny Ogilvie.

There was a deliberate low-fi feeling to the designs as well as a significant lack of the picturesque. This forest was a business-like place, and the sense that we were in a theatre was palpable. We opened on a bare stage, and the main sets were a series of wooden pallets containing logs; the use of logs throughout the work made us aware that this was a working forest, the trees themselves had a limited life. The main visual stimulus came from a remarkable scroll which unfolded downwards. Created by illustrator Anya Allin, it began with a the beginning of life, a foetus, and scrolled through the events till there was nothing at the end, when the scroll dropped and Lester Lynch's Forester took it with him on his final journey. In fact, we saw all the characters leaving the stage/dying, giving us another feeling of the melancholy progress of life.

This sense of life's cycle was emphasised by having younger versions of both the Vixen, the Forester and the Forester's Wife. The young Vixen is a character in Janacek's original opera, but by having a teenage one, with the human counterparts (all of whom reoccurred in the action) gave us a strong sense of life's cycle. Something highlighted too by the Dragonfly, who reoccurred regularly incarnated by Sarayam Mayer (child), Tyler Woodhouse (adolescent) and Joy Constantinides (mature and elderly).

Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - ENO (Photo Clive Barda)
Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - ENO (Photo Clive Barda)

There were plenty of children and young people in the production, cast through the ENO Engage programme, the ENO Opera Squad and ENO Youth Programme and their partner schools. What Manton did do however was to keep the cutesy kiddie-winkie element down to a minimum, the children were part of a larger scheme.

If all this sounds a bit dour, then it wasn't partly thanks to the wonderfully inventive costumes by Tom Scutt. The children were securely depicted as the animal or insect they portrayed, but the adult animals all had an anthropomorphic element. John Findon's magnificent Cock sported a gloriously inventive costume that would work on Rimsky Korsakov's King Dodon (in The Golden Cockerel), whilst the hens were all fussily attired in white, part fluffy hen, part bride.  And after the end of Act One, the female chorus stayed in their hen costumes, as if the surviving hens had made a run for it and taken up residence in the forest as well, a rather nice touch.

Claire Barnett-Jones' Dog was a superbly abstract creature, a fluffy ball of idiocy. There was plenty of doubling, but Manton did not link the human and animal elements, there was little sense of Alan Oke's Schoolmaster and Mosquito, or Clive Bayley's Priest and Badger being alter-egos. And there were even some extra characters, a family of mushrooms who came and went, contributing to the forest's population.

Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - Gwenneth Ann Rand, Clive Bayley, Lester Lynch, Alan Oke, John Findon - ENO (Photo Clive Barda)
Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - Gwenneth Ann Rand, Clive Bayley, Lester Lynch, Alan Oke, John Findon - ENO (Photo Clive Barda)

But central to all this was the Vixen. Sally Matthews' roles this season (and beyond) include the Governess in Britten's The Turn of the Screw, the Marschallin in Strauss' Der Rosenkavailer and Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, and in 2018 we saw her as Elisabeth in Verdi's Don Carlos in Lyon [see my review], so she was firmly a lyric soprano rather than a soubrette. Unlike some performances of this opera in larger theatres, there was never any sense that this Vixen had difficulties with Janacek's lush orchestration. Perhaps Matthews' portrayal lacked the sassy soubrette element, but this Vixen was certainly strong and spunky, and full of character. Confident and self-possessed, yet always softened by the lovely warmth in Matthews' tone. It was an engaging performance that blended in with everything on stage but held the attention. She has already sung Jenufa (in Munich), and on this showing I do hope we get to hear her in further Janacek heroines in London.

Lester Lynch was a very robust Forester, all believable rough edges and certainly not the meditative poet. There was a strong element of the working man to his portrayal, this was a believable forester which meant that he was not always quite likeable. Yet he was human too, and provided a strong thread running through the opera. His relations with the Vixen were quite practical, and his obsession with shooting her all very believable. His final scene, which took place after we had seen the other adult characters walk off the stage, their leaving the theatre being a representation of their death. So, there was definitely something climactic and fulfilling about the Forester's final scene, but Lynch's approach was robust and rough hewn rather than mystical, to the very end he was the working man complete with those awkward corners. And it was left to Janacek's music in the orchestra at the end, to bring a lump to the throat.

Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - Ossian Huskinson - ENO (Photo Clive Barda)
Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - Ossian Huskinson - ENO (Photo Clive Barda)

Pumeza Matshikiza made a delightful Fox. There was something definitely androgynous about her, and her voice with its darker hues contrasted and blended finely with Matthews' Vixen, they made a lovely pair, joyful and sexy too. Ossian Huskinson made much of very little in his portrayal of Harasta, the poacher, he made the character engaging and vivid. His diction was also some of the best and most expressive, though all the cast made a strong effort in this regard. The opera was sung in the translation by Yveta Synek Graf and Robert T Jones, one that was familiar from other performances.

Alan Oke and Clive Bayley both made their human characters strongly etched, and both were rather sad creatures, simply keeping on. Similarly the innkeeper, John Findon and his wife, Gwenneth Ann Rand, were downbeat. By contrast their animal characters, Oke as the Mosquito, Bayley as the Badger, Findon as the Cock and Rand as the Chief Hen, were glorious characters, fully coloured and animated as if the animal world were more alive than the human one. A fact emphasised by the human characters' costumes being drably coloured.  And Rand in particular seemed to be having great fun as the hen!

Claire Barnett-Jones was a delight as the abstract dog, whilst Ffion Edwards and Alexandra Oomens contributed a pair of nasty children, plus a stylish Woodpecker and Jay. Madeleine Shaw was the dour Forester's wife and similarly stylish Owl.

Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - John Findon and the Hens - ENO (Photo Clive Barda)
Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - John Findon and the Hens - ENO (Photo Clive Barda)

In the pit, Martyn Brabbins drew lush sounds from the ENO Orchestra, bringing out rich tapestries of sound. Brabbins' speeds were perhaps on the moderate side, as he drew out the rich detail and the orchestral sound was fuller and less spiky than in some performances that I have heard. In a sense, it was an approach that worked in this large theatre, so that in the end the vast void of the Coliseum was filled with a rich tapestry of sound.

Perhaps, both in look and sound, there was a strong sense of Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen being re-thought, but the results were vividly engaging and thought-provoking. The opera is not as common as we like to think in London theatres, and it remains a challenge in big houses. Manton's production was wonderfully alive and alert to the nuances of the piece, with its mix of underlying melancholy overlaid with a sense of the cycle of life.

Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - the wedding scene - ENO (Photo Clive Barda)
Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - the wedding scene - ENO (Photo Clive Barda)

Never miss out on future posts by following us

The blog is free, but I'd be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Elsewhere on this blog

  • Phantasm completes its survey of all John Jenkins's viol consorts with a disc of his four-part consorts on Linn - record review
  • Early Moderns: the (very) first Viennese School from American Baroque ensemble Quicksilver - record review
  • Most pieces use the dichotomy between tonality and atonality: I chat to composer Eleanor Alberga about writing music - interview
  • Certainly not traditional, but true to the work's spirit and dramaturgy: Edward Dick's production of Bizet's Carmen returns to Opera North with Chrystal E Williams back in the title role - opera review
  • Mendelssohn and Schumann from Antonello Manacorda and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment - concert review
  • Snapshots of a Romance: Elizabeth Llewellyn and Simon Lepper at Classical Vauxhall - concert review
  • Vividly theatrical: Irish National Opera's production of Vivaldi's Bajazet at Covent Garden - opera review
  • Devastates & dazzles: Jakub Józef Orlinski, Il Pomo d'Oro & Francesco Corti in rare 18th century arias at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • György Cziffra: Pianist János Balázs on celebrating the great Hungarian's centenary & continuing his artistic legacy - interview
  • Mélodies: French song and Czech rarities from two young Czech singers - record review
  • Orchestra of the Swan celebrates the centenary of Walton's Façade on SOMM - record review
  • In the midst of things: chamber music by Karl Fiorini - record review
  • Home

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month