One of the best things about the past few seasons at the WNO has been their commitment in exploring and rediscovering works that have been less frequently revisited in British productions, and this is also the case with this The Cunning Little Vixen, a 1924 opera by Czech composer Leoš Janáček. The work done on the text is a philological one, showing in the first place in the choice of having the opera sung in the original Czech, which is to be applauded especially in its fighting against the trend of translating operas written in less mainstream languages. Here the choice is important in bringing the work to the audience in its most effective form. Janáček had a particular interest in folk music, and he used Moravian folk music as an inspiration for the themes in this opera; the instrumental sections are as a result more important here than the average WNO audience would be used to, and the musicality of the Czech language is fundamental for the final result to come across effectively. Another side effect of this centrality of the instrumental parts is an extensive use of ballet and physical performance; the choreographies are ingenious and well engineered, and one of the most striking parts of a production that is extremely visual in nature. Equally, designer Maria Bjørnson is to be complimented for playing a pivotal role in bringing to life the atmosphere of this work, as the stage design evokes the transition of seasons in the wood, and the costumes confer a fairytale feeling to the various characters on stage. Where the animals of the woodland are all touched by a tinge of the fantastic and vaguely uncanny, the humans by contrast come across grey and almost drab, in a deliberate juxtaposition that channels one of the many subtext of the original work – the contrast between the trivial day-to-day reality of its human characters and the freedom and fascination of the nature surrounding them.
In spite of its setting, it is also a very adult work in many ways, dealing with recurring themes of the discovery of desire, the regret of love lost, the passing of time and acceptance of old age. The character of the Forester, played here by a smooth and ironic Claudio Otelli, voices a reflection on aging gracefully and looking back on fond memories of youth and love that is one of the most touching moments in this work, and probably one of the most heartfelt in the text itself when one considers that Janáček brought it to the stage for the first time at the age of seventy. On the other hand of the spectrum, themes of exuberant sexuality emerge particularly in the duet between the titular Vixen (Aoife Miskelly, whose work on the physicality of the character goes a long way in conveying her unrestrained energy) and the Fox (Lucia Cervoni, delivering one of the most outstanding vocal performances in this production), to be reprised in a more melancholy fashion by Peter van Hulle’s Schoolmaster and Wojtek Gierlach’s Parson. There is a playfulness to the whole performance that only lightly overshadows the seriousness of many of its themes, ranging from the personal to the political in what is a very ambitious text masquerading as a bittersweet fairytale, not without many moments of tongue-in-cheek comedy.
It is a work where the music is truly protagonist, where the ensemble fills the scene and the way in which characters and performances bounce off each other is paramount, and David Pountney’s direction understands this well, filling the stage with a constant interplay of figures in evocative costumes, conveying the impression of a buzzing world moving with the constant cycles of life. The Cunning Little Vixen certainly makes for a rather different experience from what most opera aficionados will be used to, one that forces its audience to reassess their priorities and challenge their expectation. In doing so it very effectively captures the magic and charm of Janáček’s music and universe, drawing the audience into a lullaby sung on a sunny meadow in a point sitting still in the middle of the running river of time.