This is a very thoughtful and thought-provoking revival of A Cunning Little Vixen, an opera that always yields a new insight or few on every outing.
Grimeborn is about experiment and risk-taking that is not usually possible among the regular opera companies. That often means that there as many wide misses as palpable hits, but it is consistently a valuable learning experience for all concerned, including audiences. Moreover there are some features of this way of hearing opera that are unique and different from the larger-scale version.
With a slimmed down chamber group for an orchestra you hear lines and textures habitually hidden within the generalised glow of a symphonic scale performance; and freed from the need for exaggerated projection and microphones the singers can relax into their acting with greater security and self-confidence. Balance of all technical kinds is not, or at least should not, be a problem in this format, and the audience can focus on the production and musical values presented.
All these virtues are very much to the fore in this new adaptation of what has become Janáček’s most popular opera. The orchestra has shrunk to a piano quintet and there is some doubling up of roles among the humans and the animals. However, the essence of the piece remains intact, and the quietly but insistently assertive feminist and environmentalist messages within come across with real conviction and intensity.
In the original opera much of the lyricism and nature painting is in the orchestral writing, but if you are used to the sound-world of the string quartets this version will seem a more than adequate substitute. Guido Martin-Brandis and Oliver Till have done an excellent job in rendering the remarkably swift changes of mood and texture within the more limited palette available, while not compromising the balance between the atmospheric instrumental sound world and the more conversational and naturalistic vocal lines.
It is wonderfully concise writing: just as in Verdi’s Falstaff, wonderful melodic inspirations dart into view, like the forest insects depicted on stage, and then disappear into the shadows, never to be seen again. The melodies evolve from each other in a way that mirrors the cycle of nature that lies at the heart of the story. For the opera as a whole to deliver its full impact this means that the story-telling needs to be equally clear and concise and that each scene builds on the gestural and dramatic vocabulary of the last.
This target is admirably achieved here by director Martin-Brandis through an emphasis as much on movement as verbal narrative. He has gone back to the composer’s original stage directions and the political context of 1923 in order to recover a lot of lost meanings and humour. On top of that the singers themselves, together with a couple of dancers, enact through dance and stylised movement elements of the action that are not spelled out in the libretto. The limitations of a small performance space have in fact acted as stimulus to the creation of a very detailed set of characterisations.
With the exception of the Forester, humans are very much pushed to the side of this opera and the animals are allowed to take centre stage. There is a lot of doubling up of roles but this does not matter – in fact it reminds us that the original inspiration for this work was a comic strip in a Czech newspaper. Ashley Mercer, Tim Langston, Camilla Farrant and Beth Taylor are kept very busy switching from one costume and role to another, but it all goes through seamlessly.
As the Forester, Oliver Gibbs finds the right balance between gruff and callous indifference in the earlier scenes and a growing empathy with the natural world through his contact with the vixen.
The success of this opera, however, rests in the portrayal of the vixen and fox, here given by Alison Rose and Beth Taylor. Both have the fresh-voiced, impish, quick-witted, ardent, lively qualities the score demands. The roles need to be fully inhabited and acted out, but without too many anthropomorphic distortions that would blunt or sentimentalise the message of the opera. These criteria are fully met in these performances.
Quite a lot rests too on set and costume design where there are perils in both too much realism and too much abstraction. The natural world needs to dominate but does not need to be ‘disneyfied’.
Alexander McPherson has rightly decided against an over detailed set – a lot of tree stumps do a lot of work as the forest and seats in the pub. More emphasis falls on the detail of the costumes where McPherson and Denisa Dumitrescu have found the right balance between showing and telling the story of the creatures, while leaving the singers free to act unencumbered.
This is a very thoughtful and thought-provoking revival of an opera that always yields a new insight or few on every outing.