Monday 7 November 2022

A radiant performance from Caroline Taylor as the Vixen lifts HGO's account of Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen

Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - Caroline Taylor - HGO (Photo Laurent Compagnon)
Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - Caroline Taylor - HGO (Photo Laurent Compagnon)

Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen; Caroline Taylor, Milette Gillow, Edward Kim, Martins Smaukstelis, Owain Gwynfryn, Conall O'Neill, director Eleanor Burke, conductor Lada Valesova; HGO at Jacksons Lane Theatre
Reviewed 6 November 2022 (★★★★)

A radiant performance in the title role really lifts this engagingly imaginative chamber version of Janacek's opera

HGO returned to Jacksons Lane Theatre for a run of eight performances (double cast) of Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen. The production is directed by Eleanor Burke, conducted by Lada Valesova and designed by Charlotte Henery. We caught the performance on Sunday 6 November 2022 which featured Caroline Taylor as the Vixen, Milette Gillow as the Fox, Edward Kim as the Forester, Martins Smaukstelis as the Schoolmaster/Mosquito, Owain Gwynfryn as Harasta, Conall O'Neill as the Badger/Priest, Wendy Silvester as Forester's wife/Owl, Alexandria Wreggelsworth as Rooster and Jennifer Statham as Lapak. The cast also included Philip Hayes, Sian Roberts, Caroline Blaire Rebecca Milford, Elizabeth Rachel Thomson, and Angharad Davies.

The work was performed in an orchestral reduction for 13 players with the orchestra to the side of the stage. Charlotte Henery's set was a simple platform covered with green carpet and a green backdrop, but the platform featured trapdoors which were much used in the production, for the Badger's den and much else besides. Costumes were colour coded according to the animal, with face makeup too, though the main emphasis was on the singers' physical actions which evoked the different animals. The production was simple yet made very effective use of the space available and the uncluttered look suited the work.

Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - Owain Gwynfryn, Edward Kim- HGO (Photo Laurent Compagnon)
Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - Owain Gwynfryn, Edward Kim
HGO (Photo Laurent Compagnon)

Janacek's opera is about the interaction and contrast between the natural world and the human one. The composer encourages this by doubling the singers, having the humans and animals played by the same people. This can raise the question of quite how human the animals should be, but here Burke ensured that her animal troupe was clearly differentiated from the humans in the village. And this benefits Janacek's storytelling where he contrasts the natural cycle of things in the forest and the animals' acceptance, with the collective melancholy of the humans. Only Harasta, the poacher, seems to be happy with his lot. Burke, however, added an extra layer to this, rather complicating matters. 

At the opening we saw the Forester (Edward Kim) and his daughter playing, he falls asleep, she runs off and is never found again. The villagers mourn her and gather flowers as a memorial to her at the corner of the stage. This memorial remains throughout the piece and the villagers' mourning of the girl is a perpetual counterpoint to Janacek's action. The young girl playing the daughter also played the young vixen in the opening scene, thus we are meant to imply some sort of identification. This constant sense of memory and mourning jarred somewhat with Janacek's music celebrating the life of the forest. The lovely moment of the Vixen's dream was replaced by more villagers mourning, but perhaps the most tonally misjudged moment was during the Vixen and Fox's wedding when the animals' celebration was paired with the mourning remembrance of the villagers. And at the end, we were not given the Forester at one with the forest, but him and his wife coming to terms with their loss.

If you could accept this significant dramaturgical change, a big if, then there was lots to enjoy.

Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - Caroline Taylor, Conall O'Neill - HGO (Photo Laurent Compagnon)
Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - Caroline Taylor, Conall O'Neill - HGO (Photo Laurent Compagnon)

For me, the performance was held together by the radiant and imaginative Vixen of Caroline Taylor. Physically she embodied the animal beautifully and never wavered in her physicality. Her Vixen was wonderfully feisty yet touching. The early moments showed her softer side, but always Taylor's Vixen had a strong element and the initial scene with Milette Gillow's Fox was very spiky indeed. This was a courtship where the Vixen seemed to have the strongest character. Taylor held our attention throughout in a wonderfully engaging way, and musically she was lyrically satisfying too, rising with ease over the reduced orchestra.

Edward Kim made a reticent, yet musically satisfying Forester. Kim has a lovely resonant baritone and sounded entirely at ease in the role, yet dramatically his performance seemed to put the Forester at one remove, and I wanted him to be a bit more demonstrative, but Kim was touching in his final aria.

As the Fox, Milette Gillow was perhaps softer-grained than usual and rather touching. Martins Smauksktelis was a sad yet elegant Schoolmaster with Conall O'Neill as the rather morose Priest (along with a wonderfully raffish Badger). Owain Gwynfryn displayed a lovely freedom of voice and demeanour as Harasta the poacher, the only human in the opera really happy and comfortable with his lot. Philip Hayes was engaging in the small role of the Innkeeper, and Wendy Silvester had far more to do than usual as the Forester's wife, and Silvester emoted bravely.

Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - Vixen, Rooster & Hens - HGO (Photo Laurent Compagnon)
Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - Vixen, Rooster & Hens - HGO (Photo Laurent Compagnon)

The smaller roles were all delightful. Alexandria Wreggelsworth was a wonderfully strutting Rooster, with Sian Roberts, Caroline Blair, Rebecca Milford and Angharad Davies as the hilarious hens. These singers, along with Elizabeth Rachel Thomson did fine duty as a variety of characters, creating a series of vivid moments. Jennifer Statham was suitable mournful (and randy) as the dog Lapak. The cast was completed by a group of 12 children who popped up in all sorts of roles and seemed to be having a great time.

The opera was sung in Czech. Given the family audience, I did wonder whether English might have been better, but there was no doubting the work all the singers had put in on the language with the principals making real expressive use of the language. The orchestral reduction worked surprisingly well. Whilst we felt the lack of weight in the strings (here just five players), what we gained was clarity and lightness of texture which showed off the individual playing well with, in particular, some lovely wind solos.

Lada Valesova showed real love and understanding of the work. In a busy production with the conductor far to one side, Valesova did her traffic-policeman duties well but also drew out a fine performance from all concerned.

Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - HGO (Photo Laurent Compagnon)
Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - HGO (Photo Laurent Compagnon)

This was a large-scale, complex operation. The opera requires quite a large cast and with the double casting that meant that rehearsals must have been quite an operation. None of this was felt in the performance, which had an engaging ease and freedom to it.

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