OPERA / Animal magic: Edward Seckerson on Janacek at the Royal Opera

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The Independent Culture
DEEP in the forest something stirs. The Cunning Little Vixen is back at Covent Garden, living proof that working with children and animals need not necessarily prove hazardous to health. Vixen was a second childhood for Janacek - all-singing, all-dancing, all-embracing, the supreme example of pantheism in music theatre. Man and beast are one in the grand scheme of things: survivors. Opera doesn't come any greener. It's ecologically sound, politically correct, gently satirical (Vixen Sharp-Ears is feminism incarnate, but ready to succumb to the first handsome fox who comes her way).

The moral is simple. At the close, the Forester - a kind of Everyman figure, capable of cruelty and compassion - is reawakened to the joy of renewal, the splendour of his surroundings. He sings a paean to nature, discards his gun, and takes his rightful place, hand-in-hand with his fellow creatures: a gesture of solidarity.

That's precisely the kind of gesture that makes this Bill Bryden production so effective. Few operas lay so many traps for the producer: it's easy to be preachy and sentimental. Janacek isn't, Bryden isn't. His staging trades generously on the opera's innate charm and cunning and strength of conviction. And it has William Dudley's inventive, resourceful designs. The wheel of life keeps turning, its mechanism set dramatically against a collage of what look to be scraps of Janacek's score. Dudley really goes to town on the costumes, wittily reminding us that Janacek's animals and humans are mirror-images of each other.

There's the magnificent dragonfly in his flying machine - very 1920s (the time of the opera), with goggles for bug-eyes. There's the sofa-slouch dachshund, the squeeze-box caterpillar, the factory-worker hens, laying and packing their own eggs (definitely not free-range). And there's the most memorable metaphor of all: the captive Vixen dreaming of freedom while her human alter ego flies balletically across the night sky on a trapeze. What a marvellous idea that is, and how naturally it complements one of the sweetest orchestral interludes ever to flow from Janacek's pen.

Most of the tales are told here in the orchestra. The woodland settings dictate the tinta of the score, the animals its dance-like character, its plethora of tiny interludes. Janacek was never more luminous or iridescent. The piccolo is overworked, celesta and harp lend the twilight gleam. Bernard Haitink has stepped into Simon Rattle's original shoes with great elan; the orchestra boldy go to it.

We still require English surtitles. Vixen's cartoon- strip origins are reflected in hyperventilating vocal lines - very difficult to get over the orchestra. From the balcony stalls, most of the words were inaudible. But the body language (movement by Stuart Hopps) was communicative, not least in Lillian Watson's Vixen, pert and engaging in her hectic courtship with Rita Cullis's Fox. Anthony Michaels- Moore was a grateful if not ideally commanding Forrester. Then again, remember that this is an opera where ensemble rules, where the Vixen's death is almost incidental and a frog has the last word.

In rep at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, WC2 (071- 240 1911) to 10 July

(Photograph omitted)