sun 14/08/2022

The Cunning Little Vixen, Royal Opera | reviews, news & interviews

The Cunning Little Vixen, Royal Opera

The Cunning Little Vixen, Royal Opera

Bryden's chewed-up homework unravels into something quite special

I have no compunction laying into vastly overrated composerscrazily overpaid conductors or lazily over-employed directors. I feel slightly more guilty doing the same to struggling singers or musicians. But a cast of tiny children dressed up as bunnies? Now, come on, even I draw the line somewhere. Sort of.

Actually, they weren't all dressed up as bunnies. Some were caterpillars, some bugs, some cubs. There were adults too, kitted up as dragonflies, badgers, dachshunds and vixens, and some even playing others adults: a schoolteacher, priest, poacher and forester. Janacek's world is simple and innocent like that of a children's tale or a cartoon strip (in which form the story originally started out). But it's also much stranger than all that.
The Cunning Little Vixen is strange not because it conforms to the topsy-turvy conventionalities of the Tim Burton school of the strange but because it is honest. It is the sort of honest strangeness that you get from a transformative poem. It's an enlightening kind of strangeness, a sight-correcting-type strangeness that one gets when viewing the world through the joyous, intense gaze of a John Clare or Walt Whitman. There is little narrative, hardly any rolling human drama, just a few animal flare-ups and poignantly pregnant human encounters. All of which provides some of the most lastingly affecting, long-lingering operatic sketches on love and loss and the joy of being alive you'll find in the whole repertoire.
Though you wouldn't have guessed it from the first two acts of Bill Bryden's revival production. Bunnies, bugs, caterpillars and cubs aside (all of whom were unimpeachably cute, honest and generally great), the joy of being alive was not at the forefront of my mind. The possible joys of being dead, on the other hand. Now that did seem an interesting line of thought.
It was brave of Bryden and designer William Dudley to attempt to walk the tightrope of simplicity and charm. It is in my opinion the right tightrope to walk. It is also the very thinnest tightrope to walk. And they were falling off it left, right and centre. The set was a horror. What faced us was the careful realisation of an 11-year-old's chewed up homework on the art of the inter-war years. At its heart was a geometric symmetry. Has Dudley ever seen any Klee, Kandinsky or Moholy-Nagy, I wondered? Asymmetry is their guiding force, their raison d'être, and would have made a perfect corollary to Janáček's complex rhythmic groupings. These artists' signature tics (Klee's arrow, Kandinsky's rainbow, a huge Constructivist metallic circle) were shamefully stolen and deployed for a maddeningly unsatisfying visual argument.
Vixen_Leggate__Maltman_JPerssonThat's not to say that some of the ideas didn't strike lucky. One has to think up of so many (to make sense of the animal episodes and the huge orchestral interludes) that it is inevitable that some will come good. And some did. The aerials were magic. Get a girl and a swing and you can't go wrong if you ask me. The hens as lard-arse cooks, the dragon-fly as airplane pioneer: these were decent ideas, and well executed (right, Robin Leggate as the Mosquito,  Christopher Maltman as the Forester). But you need more than a couple of good ideas. You need, above all else, energy, ensemble and movement. Instead a limpness pervaded singing, acting (particularly the disappointingly efficient Vixen, Emma Matthews) and, I'm afraid to say it, even the great Sir Charles Mackerras's conducting. The Whitmanesque intensity of the musical metaphors were triply castrated. Or so it seemed, until the final act.
I don't know what it was about that act. Was it the heartbreaking eruption ("Can I see another's grief,/And not seek for kind relief?") of a child in full bleating bereavement at the death of the vixen? Was there a stepping up of gear? A relaxing of voices? The entry of the Fox (Elisabeth Meister) at the end of Act Two heralded the first sign of something special stirring on stage. Remarkably, Meister was a last minute stand-in for Emma Bell. Her boyish vitality put the rest of the cast to shame. And then came the great young Matthew Rose as the poacher: an intensely alluring singer in a small role that was much appreciated by everyone.
Janáček is to blame for the final reason for the delay in gratification. And that is the singular lack of conventional opera until the third act. The first is more like a scène de ballet in the style of Rameau - full of the comic and colourful rough and tumble of a divertissement. The second only provides the bare prologue of a human drama. Only in Act Three are we offered the portraits of human regret and joy. And while energy seemed beyond everybody involved in the first two acts, it suddenly emerged like a torrent at the end. The intensely delicate conjuring up of loss by the fine-voiced Robin Leggate as the Schoolmaster, the euphoric rising up in Christopher Maltman's Forester in his paean to wedded bliss and the roar of the orchestra in their final flowering almost turned the whole evening round. In fact the feeling of those last bars was pretty overwhelming. So let's ignore the opening and revel in the end. Whitman's Leaves of Grass perhaps comes closest to expressing its sentiments. Here he is, in full Janáčekian flow:
"I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depress’d head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels,
And I could come every afternoon of my life to look at the farmer’s girl boiling her iron tea-kettle and baking shortcake."

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