English National Opera 2021-22: The Cunning Little Vixen
A Stylish & Arresting New Production from Jamie MantonBy Benjamin Poore
Photo: © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL
Opening night was delayed due to a storm – very on brand for Leoš Janáček, though perhaps more apt for “Kat’a Kabanova” – so nature very much had the upper hand when this new production of “The Cunning Little Vixen” opened at the London Coliseum on Sunday. Director Jamie Manton has previously made an impact with the company in another pastoral phantasmagoria, Benjamin Britten’s “Paul Bunyan.”
Jamie Manton’s production turns on our vexed entanglement with the natural, and our destructive postures towards it. The Vixen is taken from where she should be and placed in a dreary kitchen sink interior, all poverty and television and gloom – a symbol of the lifelessness and anomie of so much of what we call human life. We see the fruits of deforestation in huge piles logs that drift around the stage, and the contingent feel afforded by a stage with no backdrop and lots of empty space communicates feelings of lostness and changeability.
Our sense of time passing is the backdrop to this production: actors representing the young and adolescent Vixen and Forester appear and reappear as the action unfolds; the figure of the Dragonfly is a kind of shaman who watches over the world – the programme book notes that they have remained unchanged essentially since prehistoric times, fair outlasting mammals and homo sapiens.
It is transformation that the production strives towards in its very final scene, albeit an ambiguous wrought one. Gesturing to the comic-trip origins of the piece is a great unspooling strip of canvas that provides some context to the action, suggesting time passing, or, the radiant dawn of Act one. In the denouement the Forester has seemingly the cycle of abuse and despair – “I’ll treat you better this time,” he says to one of the Vixen’s cubs – and the unfurling strip depicts the ends of the score and then just plain white – a fresh start, the end of the road, or the terrifying abyss of our responsibility?
It is a thought-provoking production throughout, but never without a sense of fun, albeit with some macabre touches – there was a considerable sigh of relieved laughter as the shivering rabbit that the Fox brings as a nuptial offering managed to scamper away before they wrung its neck.
The very size of the Coliseum’s stage presents challenges for directors. Those intimidated by it tend to try and contain its size by using box-like sets and structures. But Manton’s production and his team have leaned into the very enormity of its space and, with Judo-like agility, have turned it to their advantage. With no backdrop the entirety – and there is a lot of it – of the stage area is exposed and present behind the rolled in trolleys of logs, from rear entrances to fly tower, wires, walkways, and pipes. These visible man made elements help to heighten the play of the natural world and artificed one in the opera, for a start.
The designs – by Tom Scutt – themselves play into the bigness of the space, with huge piles of logs and their large boxes, the great unspooling cartoon strip, the long streamers that stretch from floor to ceiling. They make it feel both full and empty, and hint at a kind of pantheistic sublimity that the score is plugged into.
Lucy Carter’s sensitive lighting allows the darkness at the back to hover with menace and uncertainty. This extends to to Scutt’s extravagant and outlandish costumes, composed of bright colours and unusual shapes – Lapak’s bauble-like outfit is funny and pathetic at the same stroke – that again amplify the phantasmagoric character of the piece. So too is there joy – the Act two finale was a riot of colours and bodies, packing the stage for the forest wedding. Movement, by Jenny Ogilvie, is likewise broad-brush and animated.
ENO fielded a characteristically strong cast of familiar and less familiar faces. Sally Matthews as the Vixen glittered vocally. The diction wasn’t as crystal clear as has been the case lately on the Coliseum stage, but Janáček’s stratospheric tessitura hardly helps matters. As a singing actor she imbued the character with the requisite range of expressions and feelings – one moment ruthlessly self-serving, another tender and vulnerable, and, in her very final scene, defiant at her treatment by these cruel human beings. The fireworks and long lines in the upper register all gleamed and pinged with the fierce ardour that Janáček pours into the love music of Act two.
She found an especially complex antagonist in Lester Lynch’s Forester, who offered an unusually rounded portrayal of a character who can be, too often, brutish, and who delivered an absolutely stunning final peroration, both dramatically and musically. Lynch’s voice was commandingly present across all of his well-joined registers, and never metallic in his delivery; a stronger and harder echo of his voice was found in Ossian Hutchinson’s Harašta, whose fiercer timbre suggested someone more sexually and generally aggressive.
Pumeza Matshikiza as the Fox made an excellent pairing with Matthews, much softer and rounder in timbre, with a velvety elegance and charm that was the perfect foil. Old hands on this stage – Alan Oke and Clive Bayley – sang with soulful weariness as the Mosquito/Schoolmaster and Badger/Parson respectively. Claire Barnett-Jones put in a pantomime and pitiable performance as worn-out old Lapák. John Findon strutted magnificently in voice and body as the Rooster – who could fail to do so in such a searingly shiny costume – and Alexandra Oomens impressed as the fusty Woodpecker and Pepík. The various children in the cast – some sixteen fox cubs! – sang and moved with fiery purpose and gave no quarter to the scale of the house of the stage.
ENO’s musical director Martyn Brabbins led from the pit. He has much to live up to given the centrality of Janáček’s music to ENO’s history, and its representation in the figure of the late Charles Mackerras. His was a lush account, Straussian in its richness and extravagant legato, and charged with the tough, lived-in lyricism that makes Janáček so worldly and authentic. The ‘dawn’ sequence in Act one was ravishingly Wagnerian, perhaps somewhat out of style for this music, but no less effective for it. The jagged Act three opening was all bitter gusts from the strings and window-rattling gusts from brass and timpani. It’s a reading of real passion and commitment and one only wishes ENO had scheduled more than a relative handful of performances.