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A Different Sort of Beauty

Janácek's 'The Cunning Little Vixen',
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


One thing is certain; a production of Janácek's Cunning Little Vixen by David Alden was never going to be ordinary. Alden's production opened at Grange Park Opera, Hampshire, UK, on 17 June 2009. I caught the final performance on Saturday 4 July.

Gideon Davy's set consisted of a plain interior with a single casement window, but wallpapered with vivid botanical illustrations on a lurid green background. The opera opened with the forester (Robert Poulton) looking extremely like Janácek. He pulled on the forester's cap and coat. Animals appeared, some through the walls. One or two were vaguely realistic, like the grasshopper; but many were sketchily anthropomorphic. Alden had the singers playing the villagers doubling as animals and extended this by giving us villagers wearing knitted hats as the remaining animals. There was something folk-ish and nursery-like about these animal 'costumes'. The dog's head was like something a child might have knitted, and some villagers wore animal heads/hats which could have doubled as folk items. Add to this the fact that many of the interludes were danced by a group of rather grim drunken villagers and you get a production where the village and the forest rather merge so that we are unclear whether we are seeing dancing villagers or dancing animals.

Many of the animal parts in the opera are small and Alden has clearly decided that the animals are mainly just the background. So what he gave us was a sharp eyed view of the realities of life in a village. When the vixen (Ailish Tynan) talked about the animals being great gossips and worried about getting married to Frances Bourne's dashing fox, it was clear that the vixen's forest was as bad as the forester's village, being two different sides to the same coin.

As far as the animals were concerned, Alden concentrated on the vixen and the fox; these were the two who emerged as distinct characters. Tynan's vixen appeared first on the window ledge, wearing just a black shift, her long red hair the only sign that she was a fox. She sat observing the forester. When she matured she acquired a fox pelt which she sometimes wore and sometimes carried.

Tynan's vixen was pert, self-possessed and upfront with her sexuality. Tynan was adept as fixing both animals and humans with her bright-eyed stare, assessing what was going on, hinting at greater depth to the character. Tynan certainly brought out the vixen's charm, but gave us steely self-possession as well. As regards the music, the vixen is rather a Salome of a role. In larger opera houses the need to cast the role with a lyric soprano who can look right means that sometimes the soprano's voice is covered in the louder passages. This was true, to a certain extent, in the smaller Grange Park opera house, but not as much a problem as it could have been. Tynan has a bright and beautiful sound which she certainly didn't try and force.

For the vixen's dream in Act I, Alden had a double sitting at the casement window, looking at the moon, opening the window and leaving as the real vixen was chained in the forester's back yard. When the fox comes along, he arrives through the same window silhouetted against the moon, wearing a flying helmet and overall. With a pencilled-on moustache and her figure disguised by the overall, Frances Bourne was the epitome of the dashing airman, come to carry the vixen's heart away. Bourne sang the role with a big bright voice, which sounded as if it is going to get bigger. But more than that, Bourne looked and acted like a young man; rarely have I seen a woman move so convincingly in a male role on stage.

But for Alden, this relationship was almost a threesome, as we became aware that the forester was in love with the vixen (or the idea of her) as well. Poulton's forester was beautifully done as he came to realise that he could never possess the vixen, whilst her independence and vitality of spirit gained his gradual understanding and admiration.

This was in contrast to the forester's human companions; his over-dressed wife (Carol Rowlands), the greasy schoolmaster (Wynne Evans) and the shamed, filthy parson (Timothy Dawkins) were all sad and unsatisfactory in some way. Even Harasta (David Stout) sniffed at his bride-to-be's panties (at least we hoped they were her's). They were surrounded by the positively grim and ugly world of the village, populated by caricatured nasties. This aspect of the production worried me, but Alden exaggerated for a reason: the vixen and the forest are the only sublime things in the forester's world.

The cock (Wynne Evans) was a wrestler, the chickens evilly fat village women, the dog (Gary Griffiths) was half human half nursery animal but one that was eager to have sex with the vixen. The fox cubs were schoolchildren, simply wearing cardboard boxes on their heads with fox ears sketched on. But some of Alden and Davy's references escaped me. It was, frankly, Tynan who kept this all together with her brightness and energy. She seemed to have no difficulties with the Czech and projected the text vividly. A couple of reviewers commented that the production would have been better with an English text. I didn't feel that the Czech overly inhibited the singers and frankly, when I have heard this work sung in English it has frequently been as impenetrable as the Czech version.

Of course, the vixen dies, in a moment which is heart rending but which Janácek moves from with what can seem like heartless rapidity. And then the forester gives us his final paean to nature and here it was Poulton's turn to shine. His forester had always seemed apposite, admiring but a little curmudgeonly; here he was revealed to have poetry in his soul.

André de Ridder conducted a performance which combined energy with poetry. Using the English Chamber Orchestra in this small opera house meant that de Ridder never had to strain for effect; in fact sometimes the orchestra seemed too enthusiastic. One or two early reviews had commented on the patchy nature of the ECO's playing, but by this final performance they had obviously got well run in and produced a glowing account of the score.

Alden's production thankfully eschewed the folkloric and the cute in this unsentimental production; with the help of a fine ensemble cast he found a different sort of beauty in Janácek's magical score with Ailish Tynan working her own magic in the title role.

Copyright © 8 July 2009 Robert Hugill,
London UK












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