The Cunning Little Vixen, Hackney Empire, London

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The Independent Culture

One for the pro-hunt lobby? Frankly, that's the least of The Cunning Little Vixen's problems. Janacek's exquisite eco-friendly comic-strip opera is a delicate balancing-act. How not to make it cutesy; how to temper its fantastical charm with a brutal reality? At the start of James Conway's 2002 staging for English Touring Opera (revived here by Felix Barrett), a young woman becomes the chosen one. She assumes the role of the Vixen. She is the sacrifice. And thus begins another rite of spring.

So, within the spooky confines of the designer Joanna Parker's single room, from which the characters set out on life's journey, an important precedent is set: the people on this stage are established as human beings behaving like animals; not animals suggestive of human beings. It's a subtle distinction, whichever way you look at it. And whichever way you look at it, disbelief must be suspended for the duration. But I believe Janacek needed us to see the animals as animals and the humans as humans - and then to draw the parallels between them. He requests a couple of doublings, a suggestion of cross- over between the animal and human kingdoms, but Conway goes much farther (economy doubtless being a factor) and the boundaries between them are far less distinct.

Anyone seeing the piece for the first time (and there will be many) might well be confused. Captions are used along with the surtitles (in a somewhat archaic translation) to give a comic-strip feel and to keep the audience on track. But even so, the stagecraft is often fuzzy and confused, the "rituals" ill defined and inconsistent. At the end of the first scene, a female figure wearily tosses a handful of leaves into the air. Autumn. But that's the only visual suggestion we have that the seasons go on turning until the circle of life is complete again. Whatever happened to winter, summer and spring?

There were touches that I liked. The detritus of human existence is discarded across the front of the stage like remnants of civilisation, and the pieces of it that go toward suggesting the look of the animals also make a neat comment about waste and recycling. As I say, eco-friendly. But Janacek's score is hardly player- or singer-friendly, and everyone had their work cut out. For the ETO orchestra, reduced in the main to one player per part (I did miss the score's luminescent sheen), there was no safety in numbers. Under Peter Robinson's direction, every line was cruelly exposed, but it was on the whole bravely resilient, with trumpet and timpani notably intrepid. The cast were, to a whisker, gamely uninhibited. Louise Walsh's Vixen was bright and feisty, a bit of a minx (I like the idea that on alternate nights she's giving her Musetta in La Bohème); her foxy lover/partner was the mezzo Clarissa Meek, vocally and physically virile and quite unfazed by the part's often high tessitura. Richard Burkhard strongly reconciled Poacher and Dog - a shaggy dog, as befits this tale.

And at the centre of it all was the Forester, a well-projected and unsentimental performance from Roderick Earle. Whatever else it wasn't, the even- ing was never remotely sentimental. But then neither is the pro-hunt lobby.

Touring to 1 December (www.englishtouringopera.org.uk)

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