There aren't many operas about animals. Yet at the peak of his productive late phase, the 70-year-old Leos Janacek managed to compose The Cunning Little Vixen. Janacek based the libretto on a contemporary newspaper cartoon strip about a vixen who is captured by a gamekeeper and escapes back to the woods to find a mate and to raise a litter. Aside from the vixen and fox, Janacek also creates cameo roles for a host of other creatures - a bass-voiced badger, choruses of female hens and woodbirds, insects (sung by children), and a few humans as well. The result is probably the world's first ecological opera... The fast-moving libretto, a healthy smattering of choreographed interludes, and a glittering orchestral tapestry all contribute to what can be a mesmerising operatic experience.
The ENO's Vixen is a handsome restaging of David Pountney's original production for Welsh National Opera. Maria Bjornson's undulating split- level set is a design classic in itself, with taut movement and evocative lighting adding to the richly kaleidoscopic effect. In the title role, Lesley Garrett combines fine voice, agility, stage presence and charisma as if the part had been created for her.
The Cunning Little Vixen is deservedly a real crowdpuller, which probably cannot be said for any other opera written after World War I, except perhaps Turandot. And Puccini was not even working with children and animals.