The Cunning Little Vixen, Grand Theatre, Leeds

The fantastic Mrs Fox
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The Independent Culture

These are hard times for the regional opera companies. In the upcoming season the two London houses are between them putting on no fewer than 17 new productions. Meanwhile Welsh National Opera and Opera North, who serve the rest of England and Wales, are managing two and three respectively. Talk about metropolitan bias! Money, as ever, is the sticking point.

All credit must be given, then, to Opera North, for kicking off with Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen, a show which requires a huge cast of animals, birds and insects, quite apart from the human population of a Moravian village.

It is a large part of Janacek's originality as an opera composer that he was prepared to make music drama out of the most unlikely subjects – a trip to the moon, the day-to-day life of a prison, and, in this case, a newspaper cartoon strip showing the adventures of a vixen. Out of this and the accompanying text he fashioned a story of the life cycle, of youth and age, and of the relations between human beings and the natural world – all distilled in music which is by turns ecstatic, picturesque, enchanting and passionate, and all within a score which lasts barely 90 minutes. Unbelievably, this magically fresh music is the work of a composer nearing 70.

The Opera North Orchestra, under their music director Steven Sloane, sounded as fresh as the score itself, although the singers sometimes struggled to project across the pit.

Two characters are at the centre of the story, the Forester, and the Vixen whom he catches, but who soon escapes back into the freedom of the forest. Christopher Purves as the Forester gave a splendid performance, well characterised and well sung, with superb diction. His acting will be even more effective when he remembers the old adage that less is often more. The first pub scene, with the Schoolmaster (the excellent Nigel Robson) and the Parson (Richard Angas) was marred by too much fussy business. The second had exactly the right elegiac atmosphere.

Janis Kelly made a welcome return to Leeds as the Vixen. It was her first stab at the part, and it really was extraordinarily accomplished. Along with the producer Annabel Arden, Kelly had devised a physical style for the role which, without being crude mimicry, seemed utterly apt. Her singing was radiant, and the scenes with the Fox, Giselle Allen, were rapturous. A pity we could not hear her words of incitement to the chickens. The Vixen is a model of female independence – a feminist, as the Badger snorts – and Kelly seemed well aware of this political dimension to the role.

Mark Stone made a strong impression in the cameo role of the poacher, Harasta, and the animals, birds and balletic dragonflies were delightful. Richard Hudson's green set, with clouds of leaves, spring-like or autumnal, descending from the flies, created exactly the right atmosphere. All in all, the show certainly makes an extremely handsome centrepiece to the company's autumn season.