The cute opera we have loved

Cunning Little Vixen/ENO | Coliseum, London Mahler/LPO | Royal Festival Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

It's only fair that opera companies should get some mileage out of their investments by reviving productions or selling them on, but there are no guidelines for how many times you can get away with the same show. More often than not, the first sign that an opera has overstayed its welcome is an empty theatre. Then, before you can sing "Addio", it's off to the operatic retirement village; a long line of bungalows called Dunsingin or suchlike, with plush velvet curtains that open and close thrice nightly and sound-proofing dense enough to cope with all the sex and stabbing and suicides and serenades.

It's only fair that opera companies should get some mileage out of their investments by reviving productions or selling them on, but there are no guidelines for how many times you can get away with the same show. More often than not, the first sign that an opera has overstayed its welcome is an empty theatre. Then, before you can sing "Addio", it's off to the operatic retirement village; a long line of bungalows called Dunsingin or suchlike, with plush velvet curtains that open and close thrice nightly and sound-proofing dense enough to cope with all the sex and stabbing and suicides and serenades.

David Pountney's 1980 Cunning Little Vixen is one production that must have repaid Welsh National Opera's original investment several times over before it moved to London. Janacek's morally ambiguous fable has been a regular feature at ENO since 1988 and even though some of the translated polemic now sounds like a pot'n'politics fuelled dinner party at Howard Kirk's house, Pountney's Vixen isn't quite ready for the golden handshake.

It's easy to understand this production's enduring appeal. The spicy visual imagery, lively choreography and juicily mournful music make for an intoxicating entertainment. Maria Bjornson's designs are still enchanting 20 years on. Our heroine's forest landscape is a Hornby train-set siding colonised by the creatures of a child's vivid imagination. The hedgehog, the mosquito, the caterpillar and the pinny-wearing hens are masterpieces of anthropomorphisation. The cast's human and animal characters (dancers and singers) revel in their scampering, strutting and philosophising and the ensemble work - particularly from the children - is excellent. If this all sounds too cute for words, there are two very clever performances to remind us of the teeth and claws beneath the fake-fur; a crystal-clear Peter Coleman-Wright as the frustrated and bored Forester (it wouldn't be an Eastern European drama unless several characters were convinced that the interesting things in life always happen elsewhere) and a luminous Susan Gritton as Vixen. This is Gritton's first Vixen and she throws herself into the role with forthright energy and concentration. Gritton treads a fine line between emphasising the sweetness of Vixen and her fatal pride. Her physical acting is superb, her vocal acting only slightly outshone by her movements, but none of the roles is exactly gratefully written for the voice and Gritton's lean, tart soprano voice would have benefited from more sensitive accompaniment.

The performance wasn't without problems, though most were down to first night nerves, I think. Mezzo Sarah Connolly, one of ENO's greatest assets, struggled with the soprano tessitura of Fox. Conductor Richard Farnes's control of the dazzling, glassy score was not secure and the balance between singers and players was problematic. Janacek's idiosyncratic instrumentation makes maintaining a clear pulse hard work and from the stalls you could see Farnes' baton sweep higher and higher, as though trying to rise above the rhythmic glitches. Unsurprisingly, when his beat was held in towards his body the band responded far better and the orchestral interludes were the most rewarding moments. The cast are all sufficiently intelligent not to need nurse-maiding anyway so it might be better if Farnes were to concentrate on the difficulties facing players who have to slip seamlessly in and out of the texture - often in exposed and awkwardly written solos.

Despite the odd wobbly moment the reception was warm, especially for Gritton. It'll be a sad day at the Coliseum when Vixen is finally retired - like packing away a beloved but battered childhood toy. Pountney's production might not quite make the grade as a true classic but it is that rarest of things in the opera-world; a production to which you could happily take your lover, your mother, your grandmother or your child. And goodness knows, after eight consecutive new productions in the autumn season, ENO deserves to indulge in a little nostalgia.

There was more nostalgia as Esa-Pekka Salonen stepped in to replace the injured Bernard Haitink for the London Philharmonic Orchestra's performance of Mahler's Third Symphony - the first piece he ever conducted at the Royal Festival Hall, way back when. Sadly his performance of this difficult work was plagued by problems.

You can never really know what's happening from this side of the stage but what Salonen seemed to lack (and what is possibly Haitink's greatest gift) was rhythmic security. To compound the usual ensemble problems of one player sitting 20 to 30 feet away from the person he or she is duetting with, this roman a clef symphony is so intricate that you need the kind of conductor who can respond to the mood of the moment without losing the bigger picture. Salonen's interpretation was persuasive moment by moment - but without an established tactus, his many accelerandi and rallentendi appeared to come from nowhere, turning Mahler's extended poem into a series of epithets and leaving the players high and dry in the Festival Hall's naked acoustic. I'm all for eye-contact, but players should be able to look down at the music or their fingers without getting left behind - especially when the music calls for such extreme dynamics.

Salonen rallied towards the end, perhaps inspired by the excellent female chorus and Anna Larsson's gorgeous resinous contralto. (She was in fact the only performer who seemed utterly in control.) The final movement promised real shape; the LPO's distinctive, dusky throatiness began to really sing and something magical and terribly, terribly quiet was just on the verge of happening when a mobile phone went off. "HELLO! I'm at a CONCERT... A CONCERT!!! SORRY? MAHLER!" Well, I made that bit up. The phone only rang once, no-one answered but, I tell you, I feel such utter sympathy for the poor mortified sod whose phone it was that it's only just exceeded by my sympathy for the players who had worked so damn hard to create that almost-magic against the odds.

'Cunning Little Vixen', Coliseum, WC2 (020 7632 8300) to 2 March

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