If your idea of Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen is of an adorably twee fairytale with furry tails and pointy ears, then the interpretation James Conway has applied to English Touring Opera's latest production probably isn't for you. But if, like the company's new general director, you find it hard to square Janacek's fantastically passionate and vivid score with a pantomime of crouching, crawling humans pretending to be woodland creatures, then his fascinating and unsentimental concept represents a refreshing take on an old fable.
His starting-point is Janacek's identification of the ending of the opera and his placing of the Vixen's death within a bigger picture of the cyclical nature of life. Conway adds an extra layer to the plot, turning the story into an opera within an opera performed by a group of village folk acting out their human relationships through the Vixen and the other characters. In this way Conway makes explicit the idea that Janacek merely used the cartoon-strip serialisation of the novel about Vixen, Sharp-Ears, to create something much deeper, wiser and more personal.
It asks a lot of the singers, as well as the audience. The brief and somewhat frantic mime crammed in to the opera's short prelude isn't really adequate in establishing what is going on. But, once over this bemusing hurdle, it's impossible not to be drawn into Janacek's evocative world. Joanna Parker's striking backcloth forest and Caroline Hughes's unfussy costumes in no way detract from the individuality of animal life, which extends beyond foxes to pond life, and from floppy farmyard dog to clucking hens. Beatrix Potter it isn't, and the animals with which Janacek felt so at home are treated as seriously as the Forester, Schoolmaster, Poacher and so on.
The conductor Andrew Greenwood makes a persuasive case for Jonathan Dove's accomplished, scaled-down orchestration, which shows remarkable textural ingenuity in supporting but seldom drowning the voices, at least not in the intimate surroundings of Buxton Opera House. Louise Walsh is an engaging Vixen, doubling as the village girl Terynka, while as Poacher turned Dog, the warm-voiced James McOran-Campbell is perhaps more at ease in the canine role. Charles Johnston makes a characterful Forester, especially touching in the scena that ends the opera, which the composer insisted be played at his funeral.
But the essence of this tight company is the team spirit that ensures that even the smaller roles, such as the four played by the versatile Clarissa Meek, are enthusiastically sketched.
Tour continues with 'Vixen', in rep with 'Don Giovanni', at the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, and Theatre Royal, Bath (020-7820 1131; www.englishtouringopera.org.uk)