David Pountney's production of Leoš Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen is over forty years old now, but it hasn't faded one little bit, and his re-staging for Opera North - he also made the English translation - has all the freshness and vitality I remember from seeing Welsh National Opera's performance in the 1980s - Theatre Royal, Nottingham UK, 14 March 2023.
Janáček could sniff out the operatic potential in the most unlikely sources, in this case a newspaper strip-cartoon and the accompanying prose story-line. Maria Björnson's set and costumes had the directness of the originals, counterpointing the bright, colourful natural world with the drably-attired human characters.
Vixen Sharp-ears is certainly no saint, but Elin Pritchard's winning portrayal got you on her side from the word go, her comfortably wide vocal range combining with a sparky stage presence to maximum effect.
Richard Burkhard was blunt and down-to-earth as her adversary, the Forester, who steals her from the forest as a cub, but whose desire for revenge on being outwitted by her softened convincingly into a final acceptance of his place in the natural order. When Heather Lowe's bright-voiced, bright-eyed Fox came courting Sharp-ears in Act II, their love music positively radiated warmth.
Paul Gibson was pompously huffy as the Badger, the only misfit among the forest animals, and James Davies was suitably grouchy, lecherous and self-obsessed as the Forester's dog, Lapák, with whom Sharp-ears has to share her captivity.
The final scene of Act I, in which Sharp-ears tries to rouse the Forester's hens in revolt against domination by the Cockerel - a suitably imperious Campbell Russell - was the big comic moment it always is, with the Hens allowed an additional, post-curtain collective squawk.
Away from the forest, the human characters spend their time mostly looking back regretfully to the past - Paul Nilon's dessicated Schoolmaster and Henry Waddington's gloomy Parson were both haunted by failed attempts at relationships, and Claire Pascoe gave the Innkeeper's Wife an air of washed-out resignation; Callum Thorpe's shifty Poacher looked positively alive in comparison.
Dance is an important element, led here by Stefanos Dimoulas' elegant Dragonfly, and Lucy Burns as Sharp-ears' alter ego in her dream of freedom, the two of them reaching out to each other movingly at the end. Stuart Hopps' original choreography, re-staged by Associate Director Elaine Tyler-Hall, also populated the forest with a troupe of face-painted children hopping, skipping and cart-wheeling across the stage.
Balance between the orchestra and voices was not always ideal from where I was sitting, but I gather this wasn't the case in other parts of the house. More seriously, the off-stage chorus in the Vixen and Fox's wedding scene was barely audible, which took some of the shine off Act II's ending.
But conductor Oliver Rundell's overall pacing was spot-on, and the Opera North orchestra realised Janáček's distinctive instrumental sonorities to brilliant effect.
Copyright © 23 March 2023