Review: WNO - The Cunning Little Vixen @ WMC
An opera based on a comic strip? What lunacy, some might say. No, no. It is in fact one very accessible and enjoyable work.
With music by LeoÅ¡ JanÃ¡Äek, this piece evokes the glory, curiosity and mischievousness that occurs in nature. Our heroine, Vixen Sharp-Ears, played by Sophie Bevan, is the embodiment of all things free. The attempts of the Forester played by Jonathan Summers, in claiming her and owing her are in vain. Even his futile attempts to kill her, seem to be the only thing keeping him going. His obsession with the fox is a matter in which he does deny at some points. He can be seen as the destructive force of the human and how nature has learned to adapt around us.
This certainly a good starting point for kids to have an introduction to opera. I would describe it as the Babe of the opera world (one of my favourite children's films). My plus one had never been to the opera before and didn't know what to expect. This piece could have easily been criticised in decades gone by, of having opera singers playing animals, gallivanting around the stage. It is quite rare in opera. But JanÃ¡Äek had a wonderful sense of humour and he pulls this off pretty well.
His music is unique. You know momentarily when it is his music playing. All the elements of the church, folksong (very important in his scores), Czechoslovakian heritage and time are infused into his output. I say time, since most of what he composed was in his twilight years. This is also very rare and is a different stance on art in the elder generation. Did he have more time to prepare to compose? Could this flare have not come from his earlier years, if given the chance?
WNO's production, like Madam Butterfly is over thirty-years-old. I pondered over which production shows its age more. It's mainly The Cunning Little Vixen. It comes across as very much a work of its time. But it can hold up today, even if it as been no where near preformed as much as their Butterfly.
The set was a large and lumpy field with screens for the horizon. Many creatures crawled, hopped and flew across it. A nice touch were the branches hanging over this with no apparent support from a tree. The cast playing birds were up their as well in seats, reading newspapers and generally observing the events of the story. This is a piece that requires a fair amount of children to participate as well. Some even have small singing roles. They say you should never work with children or animals on the stage. Here the former are very much being the latter.
A highlight of the production were the chorus of hens, lead on by the Cockerel played by Michael Clifton Thomas. I have seen Thomas in the chorus for many WNO productions and it's great to see him get bit parts in the cast. I couldn't even recognise him with all the make-up and flair of his costume. In a moment of genius, JanÃ¡Äek (who also wrote the libretto, the words of the opera) has the Vixen rally the hens to retaliate against the brutality and exploitation of the Cockerel who is only after their eggs. A great moment of feminism from an animal.
When this fails after a brief time, the Vixen plays dead and punches on the chickens, causing them to die by throwing red feathers into the air and landing on the floor. The Forester's Wife played by Fiona Harrison looks on in horror at this, only then for her husband to arrive brandishing a giant broom in the attempts to whack the Vixen, who escapes in the process. His wife delivers a hefty slap across his face at the very end if the act as well.
When the Vixen is killed, it is in fact by the poacher called HaraÅ¡ta. This character we hardly know. Perhaps audiences would have preferred her death by the Forester's hands, if she really had to die. She is shot in the back by his shotgun. The silence after this was so long you could have parked a car in it. This deadly serious moment felt just as sad as any other opera character death and there's certainly plenty of them. Quite heart breaking...
This rambunctious, little work is one of the many people's favourites by JanÃ¡Äek. It's nice to come out of the opera before 10pm for a change as well.
After seeing this, JenÅ¯fa and Katya KabanovÃ¡ all by WNO, I would still say that we need to hear more of his work.
Fly high Sharp-Ears!
Related Article: Review: WNO - Madam Butterfly @ WMC
Photo Credit: Catherine Ashmore