Arcola Theatre, London (***)
Even if Czech is not your first language, nor Leos Janáček’s music for that matter, Guido Martin-Brandis, Oliver Till and The Opera Company’s chamber version, part of the Arcola’s excellent Grimeborn festival, will still touch you in unexpected places. Grander companies have and no doubt will in the future be able to lavish more money on costumes, choruses and decor. But Martin-Brandis and Till, playing to the strengths of intimacy and a piano quintet arrangement, bring out enough colour and freshness to make this two hours of absolute delight.
True, choreographically speaking, you might find more sylph like members amongst the Royal Opera or English National opera ballet dancers. But Martin-Brandis, Till and choreographer Nina Von Der Werth find a sweet innocence as well as injecting telling characterisation into this early 1920s (1921-23) tale of the vixen who escapes a human forester only to find love and an arbitrary death from a poacher.
Taken from a comic strip novella by Rudolf Těsnohlídek and Stanislav Lolek, Janácek crafted a story (known up until 1970 as The Adventures of Vixen Sharp Ears) into a delicate rhapsody to Nature and the eternal cycle of danger, death and rebirth.
A strange and at times slightly truncated and mystifying narrative that zips from animal forest frolics to pub talk between locals – a forester, a priest and a frustrated schoolmaster – on unrequited love, even in the close proximity of the Arcola, Janáček’s libretto was not always easy to follow.
Yet the melodic line of his music and the playing of it under Oliver Till headed by the outstanding contribution from Israeli pianist Noam Greenberg was a constant joy as indeed was also the quality of the singing.
One of the strengths of a festival like Grimeborn is to make opera available to a much greater cross-section at an affordable price and Cunning Little Vixen’s performance last night (and its final one) was notable for the sense of youthfulness both on stage and off.
Here is a chance for new, young performers to flex vocal muscles and to prove that opera is not just for a privileged elite.
As the vixen, Alison Rose, already a seasoned lieder and opera singer, shortly to sing Barbarina in ENO’s upcoming The Marriage of Figaro, was sweet of voice with Beth Taylor as the Fox bringing real depth and ardour to their Richard Strauss-like love duet.
Excellent work too from Tim Langston in a variety of roles but particularly as the infatuated schoolmaster and Ashley Mercer’s priest who made both far more than cut-out stereotypes.
All in all, as fresh as it was unexpected, it has definitely left this viewer with a taste for more of what Grimeborn has to offer.
The Cunning Little Vixen Music and words by Leos Janacek:
Vixen: Alison Rose
Cricket, Frog, Hen, Forrester’s Wife, Fly, Fox Cub: Camilla Farrant
Dog, Hen, Fly, Fox: Beth Taylor
Mosquito, Rooster, Schoolmaster, Jay: Tim Langston
Forrester: Oliver Gibbs
Badger, Priest, Harasta: Ashley Mercer
Dancers: Abigail Attard Montalto, Jade Brider
Direction: Guido Martin-Brandis
Musical Direction: Oliver Till
Choreography: Nina Von Der Werth
Set Design: Alexander McPherson
Costume Design: Denisa Dumitrescu, Alexander McPherson
Lighting Design: Jai Morjaria
Répétiteurs: Hamish Brown and Thomas Ang
Assistant Director: Lysanne van Overbeek
Band: The Asyla Ensemble
Violin: Beatrice Philips and Joshua Dalton
Viola: Fra Rustumji
Cello: Colin Alexander
Piano: Noam Greenberg
Musical Arrangement: Guido Martin Brandis and Oliver Till
Presented by Arcola Theatre and The Opera Company
First perf of this production of The Cunning Little Vixen at Arcola Theatre, London, July 31, 2017. Performances ran from July 31-Aug 4, 2017
Review published on this site, Aug 5, 2017