Opera Holland Park 2021 Review: The Cunning Little Vixen
A playful, tender production of Janáček’s animal comedy teems with lifeBy Benjamin Poore
(Photo: Ali Wright)
The second half of Opera Holland Park’s revamped summer offering opened this week with Leoš Janáček’s late, philosophical comedy “The Cunning Little Vixen,” conducted by Jessica Cottis and directed by Stephen Barlow.
One of the strange gifts of lockdown for Londoners – those blessed with gardens anyway – was the opportunity, working from home, to experience more intimately the rhythms of urban fox life, which interlock with ours in complex ways: families sleeping on shed roofs, scavenging bins for leftover takeaways, making their dens at the bottom of the garden. Some scientists believe that foxes now are going through a process of self-domestication in cities similar to dogs and cats thousands of years ago. There are doubtless dozens enjoying whatever is discarded by OHP’s picnicking patrons each evening.
Barlow offers a spry and witty realization of the drama that explores this entanglement of natural and urban. A central prop is a green municipal recycling bin, which serves as Badger’s set and bar for the inn, an apt symbol for humanity’s (failed) obligations towards the environment. It’s a keen choice for this venue. CEO James Clutton reminded us before the show, every chair in the auditorium has been reclaimed from theaters and operas across the country, formerly props in innumerable productions. So too has the theatre this summer, designed by takis, been made from recycled materials.
Animals wear high-visibility vests, and the frog plays with a football that the young vixen chases. The chickens are cleaners, ruled by a tyrannical besuited cockerel boss, an image that brings together exploitation in both natural and social hierarchies. (In this opera the human and animal worlds do not just reflect but intertwine – the Vixen doubles in a cameo as red-haired beauty Terynka.) The Forester is clad as a council worker. It’s a sideways glance, perhaps, at the essential, low-paid workers who are scarcely acknowledged but vital to the rhythm and lifeblood of the city. The Fox seduces the Vixen with not a dead rabbit but a sandwich from Pret in a knowing joke (urban foxes thrive off the innumerable leftovers from the capital’s takeaways).
Though an opera ostensibly about animals – a cipher for our animality – it is shot through with moments of extraordinary humane insight. The Act three pub scene is just one example, where the Forester and the barmaid share a melancholy reflection on the now-departed Priest, who finds himself lonely in another parish, someone who they didn’t even really like that much but was nonetheless part of the furniture of their lives. It’s an opera that sings the quiet pains of transience – so too the aching necessity of renewal.
Barlow is economical with props but does not lack in spectacle, aided by Rory Beaton’s atmospheric lighting. In the opening scene the children enter through the auditorium with brightly-colored windsock kites, in a wonderful use of the airy space of the theatre. The final scene, with its tranquil elegiac rapprochement with death and transfiguration, sees these kites return, surrounding the Forester and bathed in the light of a sunset, which blazes out at the final chord; the Vixen appears behind, basking in light. The conclusion teems with life. A little sentimental? Perhaps. But moving? More than a little.
Playful & Idiomatic
A playful, idiomatic translation by Norman Tucker is tweaked for plenty of humor and site-specificity. The Fox is from the Forest Hill neighborhood; the Vixen journeys up to Camden. “One day women will conduct operas about you,” the Fox exclaims to the Vixen, gesturing over to Jessica Cottis, who receives a namecheck later in the same scene from the Owl. The fox trap of Act three is, again, a sandwich from Pret a Manger. The reference to the peacocks of Holland Park might be one gesture too far, though – it is flies that buzz in Janáček’s orchestra, and their symbolic importance as harbingers of death and decay is lost.
It is presented in a superb reduced orchestration by Jonathan Dove, who has ploughed an ingenious furrow of his own with these arrangements (One happy consequence of the pandemic might be that its limitations encourage fringe and chamber companies to explore them more). The only place where it perhaps lacked oomph was in an underpowered Act two finale, along with some overexposed brass passages, though the chorus certainly made up for it with powerful, energetic singing.
Though reduced in size his arrangement captures the score’s most sumptuous moments – the Act two love music felt as luxuriously Wagnerian as ever – and its crispness. Its relative transparency elsewhere sat well with the airy, open canopy of Holland Park – yet another element of the production that felt perfectly tailored to the setting. The addition of a wheezing accordion was an especially inspired adaptation, folksy and melancholy by turns.
Jessica Cottis conducted with panache and tenderness, in a fleet-footed account of the score. After a few early fumbles with the ensemble the City of London Sinfonia more than found their feet and played sumptuously throughout, especially in the more Straussian moments of Janáček’s music. The raw, unfettered lyricism that allows his music to bypass the brain and go straight to the gut was well in advance, particularly in the radiant conclusion to act three.
The wide auditorium meant some inevitable acoustical problems, as with their “Marriage of Figaro;” if singers faced away they simply could not be heard. But this is a minor complaint in such a focused and forward-moving evening of drama, which can take a few dropped lines.
Jennifer France sang the title role with fierce brilliance, top notes shining and pinging. It is a big voice but spry and flexible too, and showed no signs of flagging. She plays up the embattled aspects of the role – more defiant than cunning – but is achingly vulnerable in the first flushes of love. Most stunning, perhaps, was a delicate, tender “Yes” at the gentle climax of the Act two love scene – a perfect messa di voce, swelling with passion and softening with a caress. She was matched in power by Julia Sporsén’s Fox, who was rambunctious and youthful at every turn.
Grant Doyle also excelled as the Forester, barring a few pinched top notes. He convincingly embodied the weariness and elegiac qualities of the role, and sang with remarkable clarity of diction. Ashley Riches substituted at last minute for the Poacher, and sauntered and sang with blithe menace.
John Savournin doubled as Priest and Badger, understated until his morose recollection of a broken love affair in Act three, the voice of bitter propriety in the opera. Charne Rochford’s Schoolmaster was in bright and tender voice. Elsewhere, Natasha Argawal and Harriet Eyley gave effusive performances as Lapák and Chocholka (the latter sings the title role later in the run). The children of the cast, as assorted fox cubs, frog (a delicate Daniel White) and the young Vixen (a playful Estella Charlesworth) all performed with generosity and spirit.
This is an open-hearted and lively performance of a perfect summer opera.