The Cunning Little Vixen, Grange Park Opera, Hampshire<br>The Corridor, Semper Dowland ..., Aldeburgh Festival, Suffolk<br>Parthenogenesis, Linbury Studio, London

Janacek and Alden work their animal magic on Fantastic Mrs Fox
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Stuffed with cotton and plaster and mounted on the wall of a dusty room, the stag, badger, fox, boar, hare, rabbit and pheasant that watch glass-eyed over David Alden's production of The Cunning Little Vixen are a warning.

Let your heart beat a little faster at Sharp-Ears' revolutionary manifesto, her slaughter of the chickens, her thrilling escapes from captivity and bullets, melancholic dogs and booze-befuddled humans. Let a smile play around your lips as she stumbles through the first flush of love and the pain and pride of motherhood. By the end of Act III, she too will be dead, remembered only in the dreams of the Gamekeeper.

Janacek's anthropomorphic fantasy begins and ends with a nap. Here the nodding head is that of the ageing composer, the forest a low-ceilinged interior. Botanical illustrations creep up the walls of Gideon Davey's set: stalks, seed-pods and stamens. As Robert Poulton pulls the Gamekeeper's hat over his Janacekian shock of white hair, the Grasshopper puts bow to string. Poised on the windowsill is Sharp-Ears (Ailish Tynan), a vulpine mascot for the drunk, lonely or hen-pecked villagers who gather at the inn, drowning their failures, falling off their chairs and grimly plying their babies with beer.

If Janacek was unforgiving of rural archetypes, Alden goes further. The lovelorn Schoolmaster (Wynne Evans) sports a greasy comb-over, the shamed Parson (Timothy Dawkins) wears filthy robes, and Harasta (David Stout) greedily sniffs a pair of lace-trimmed panties. Ben Wright's movement direction is a whirl of stamping feet, palsied necks and jack-knifed torsos. As the mournful Dog, Gary Griffiths is quick to throw down his consoling volume of verse and attempt to mount the Vixen. The Cock (Evans again) is a Mexican wrestler, the Chickens dough-breasted babushkas, the Fox (Frances Bourne) a libidinous car mechanic, Sharp-Ears herself a kohl-eyed trollop in a satin slip, all fur and no knickers.

Amid the deconstruction (some animals have the knitted faces of soft toys, while the Cubs are prep-school pupils with pointed ears drawn on to their cardboard-box heads), the gestural exaggeration and the gently inclining sunflowers, Alden's development of the central characters is perceptive. The story here is not the love between Vixen and Fox, but that of the Gamekeeper for Sharp-Ears.

Poulton's bafflement and growing respect for the creature that won't be tamed, his admiration, anxiety and sorrow are beautifully drawn. Tynan's chutzpah and candour, energy and engagement are electrifying and she bites into the clustered Czech consonants with relish. The Schoolmaster's lament is touching, and though the English Chamber Orchestra lacks sufficient refinement of tone to balance André de Ridder's visceral conducting, this is a strong production.

Co-produced by Aldeburgh Festival and the Southbank, and staged in an austere double-bill with Semper Dowland, semper dolens, Harrison Birtwistle's The Corridor freezes the story of Orpheus and Eurydice at the point of Orpheus's fatal backward glance. A cyclical series of complaints, tirades, self-justifications and accusations, it subverts four centuries of sympathy for the bereaved hero. Where Monteverdi and Gluck ask which of us would not turn back, Birtwistle and his librettist David Harsent ask which of us would be so damn stupid.

Stripped of their names, Man (Mark Padmore) and Woman (Elizabeth Atherton) engage in a war-of-the-sexes dialogue as devoid of hope as any Margaret Atwood dystopia: one condemned to mourn his mistake to the dank, dark sound of a harp, the other traumatised by terror and hope, berating her prideful lover with querulous clarinet, dusty flute and vituperative strings. Notwithstanding the potency of Harsent's verse, the acuity of London Sinfonietta's sextet, Padmore's eloquent keening and Atherton's blistering monologues, there is a shopworn quality to the music. (Eurydice's jagged melismas recall those of Ariadne in The Minotaur.)

In Semper Dowland the clarinet and flute are oddly chintzy additions to the viol-like strings and the harp is too cumbersome for the rhetorical intricacy of the lute song transcriptions. Londoners can decide for themselves when the double-bill transfers to the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Those in Aldeburgh can hear Padmore sing Dowland minus Birtwistle this afternoon.

A humid wash of strings, a moan of horns and a twist of pain. Written for Theology Through the Arts and meticulously staged by Katie Mitchell, James MacMillan's Parthenogenesis is based on the story of a virgin birth triggered by the bombing of Hanover in 1944. It's an interesting subject for an opera but instead of exploring the character of the mother, and whether she is believed or disbelieved, MacMillan and librettist Michael Symmons Roberts concentrate on the moment of conception – a kiss from a fallen angel – as imagined by their child, Anna (Charlotte Roach), who, in a particularly nasty stroke of authorial fancy, is dying of ovarian cancer at the age of 24. Played by the Britten Sinfonia, the score glittered with fervency. As Kristel and Bruno, Amy Freston and Stephan Loges's acting was superb but their words were largely inaudible. Given the high hokum factor, this was a relief.

'The Cunning Little Vixen' (01962 737366) to 4 Jul; 'Semper Dowland...'/ 'The Corridor' (0871 663 2500) 6/7 Jul