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The ENO presents an exciting new production of one of Janáček’s most enduring operas, The Cunning Little Vixen, for the first time since 2001.
With a libretto from a serialised novella published in Czech newspaper Lidové noviny, the opera tells the story of a young vixen – Sharp Ears – captured by a Forester. On the surface, a comic story about a clever fox, the opera also offers deeper philosophical reflections and tragedy.
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ENO The Cunning Little Vixen – A colourful journey into the forest – Carol J Jones
The premiere may have been delayed by Storm Eunice, but this didn’t dampen the audience’s spirits, who greeted conductor Martyn Brabbins with warm applause. This is English National Opera’s seventh staging of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen and it’s no wonder why: the audience loves this tale of nature and humanity fighting to coexist.
The Cunning Little Vixen is director Jamie Manton’s first main stage production for ENO who, with designer Tom Scutt, have gutted the stage, leaving us the bare bones of the London Coliseum. Instead, the forest is represented by a mesmerising hanging scroll centre stage, illustrated by Anya Allin, with the chorus wheeling trolleys filled with logs around the stage. This minimalist approach, though intriguing, is too early too soon and means that, apart from a powerful opening to Act III, we never see the changing relationship between nature and humanity. This is somewhat saved by Allin’s illustrations as well as Scutt’s electric costumes which include an adorable mushroom and Claire Barnett Jones as the Dog enveloped in mountains of grey fabric.
As we have come to expect, ENO has produced a stellar cast. Sally Matthews’s bright voice and devil may care charm makes for a vivacious Vixen. Lester Lynch’s rich voice echoes across the auditorium, capturing our attention as the lonesome, frustrated Forrester, especially in the final heart-wrenching scene. Pumeza Marshikiza’s Fox radiates intelligence and her bell-like voice marks her as one to watch. Other standout performances include Alan Oke and Clive Bayley as the doddery Schoolmaster and Priest respectively and Ossian Huskinson as the overconfident Poacher. Notably, this production includes 20 children from ENO’s Engage programme who flood the stage with a youthful exuberance that culminates in a vibrant Act II finale.
Brabbins returns to conduct, having taken the reins earlier this season with The Valkyrie. This Wagnerian sound appears to have followed Brabbins, for there are occasions where it’s difficult to hear the signers over the might of the ENO orchestra. Despite this somewhat heavy-handed approach, Brabbins takes great care with the younger cast members and masterfully guides them through their choruses.
This is a production filled with colour and flare yet it falls short of its central message. For all its hits, the radiant ‘Dawn’ that opens Act II and heartbreaking Act III finale, there are just as many misses, the dragonfly unitard and ‘cape’, the subdued Act I finale and the overwhelming lack of nature. Then again, if you heard the audience as the cast came on stage to take their curtain call, you’d have been deafened by the applause.
The Cunning Little Vixen – Opera Review by Maxine Morse
A sweet-natured, pointy eared vixen entrapped by a forester for use as a children’s pet, later to be tied up in the back yard and who, on escaping, reverts to her true nature by killing the cock, ravishing the hens and escaping back to the woodland to start a family, only to be killed by an oafish poacher from a neighbouring village.
On the surface The Cunning Little Vixen (1924) by Leoš Janácek is a charming tale accompanied by the distinctive rhythm of Moravian folk songs.
We are confronted with the beauty of unbridled nature pitted against the moribund and decaying human world – a “four legs good, two legs bad” Orwellian allegory. Contrast the exuberance and free spiritedness of the woodland animals and the dull, dreary lives of the forester, priest and school master.
Sally Matthews sings the key soprano role of Sharp Eyes the Vixen. She successfully conveys the character’s sweet nature – coy, demure but her modest downward gazes mean that her voice is sometimes directed into the orchestra pit. Pumeza Matshikiza provides the perfect counterfoil as her paramour, the Fox. Pumeza’s voice is clear and colourful…any right-minded vixen would find her hard to resist.
Lester Lynch as the Forester, prowls and growls his way around the stage striking terror in his wake. He has a commanding bodily and vocal presence which fills the stage.
The best comic moments stem from its anthropomorphism. Sharp Eyes describes her background and education as if on a first date and has the audience guffawing at mention of the mating activities of other creatures and when the forester sets a trap, Bright Eyes exclaims “Does he think we are fools?”.
Tom Scutt’s adopts a television studio set with props and storyline painted onto huge scrolls of paper to give vertical interest. The blackened stage provides a foil for the colourful animal, insect and fauna costumes. There are iridescent insects, metallic red-spotted toadstools and bridal Chickens with perfect yellow patent shoes. Some costumes were less successful, a giant ball of fluff turned out to be a family dog and scurrying black-hatted creatures could be Victorian bobbies or beetles.
Martyn Brabbins made light work of the conducting which was challenging as the music called for frequent loud and staccato percussion pieces that needed to be perfectly timed not to drown out the vocals. With this in mind it may have befitted the priest (Clive Bayley) and the School Master (Alan Oke) to project their voices more in Act Two to counterbalance the musical score.
And it’s a wrap…the poacher kills the vixen, the forester exits out of the studio back door…we run out of projector tape – it’s the end.
Jamie Manton, pulls the rabbit out of the hat, his direction makes for an exuberant production that relays a charming comic tale and gives something to chew over for those looking for deeper allegorical significance.
The Cunning Little Vixen Review – Alexander Cohen
“Cancelling the most beautiful opera ever written about the power of nature – because of a storm – couldn’t be more poignant.”
So tweeted Stuart Murphy, Chief Executive Officer of the ENO after strong winds, courtesy of Storm Eunice, cancelled the first performance of their new production of The Cunning Little Vixen. Jamie Manton’s new production certainly is a poignant one. Janáček’s mediations on nature’s cyclicality and our transience as human beings are fully present. But his production is also teeming with a sense of childlike delight and playfulness. With ENO Music Director Martyn Brabbins conducting, he leads the orchestra and this glimmering production into the magical forest that is Janáček’s rich Moravian folk inspired opera.
As both set and costume designer, Tom Scutt is the mastermind behind Manton’s production. Taking a sandbox approach to set design, the stage begins as empty and skeletal, with even the rigging on show. There is no attempt to hide the artifice. Stage doors and lights are visible throughout the performance. But this unlocks the audience’s imaginations: as logs and walls hover in and out, the forest and all its animals spring to life. The only stable part of the set is a giant tapestry dangling centre stage that unravels revealing illustrations as the opera unfolds. The audience watch it as a child watches the pages turn on a bedtime story book; each image is a new whimsical world to explore. Take the revelation of the sun at dawn after the titular Vixen breaks free of the Forrester’s restrains in Act 1. The orchestra swells to a triumphal moment of jubilation as a new day begins, evoking the power of nature that Murphy was talking about.
Scutt’s costume designs are one of the other toys the audience are given to play with. Metallic blue lyrca for buzzing dragonflies, a colossal bouncing fluff-ball body suit for Clare Barnett-Jones’s Dog, each of the animals’ personalities are gleefully woven into their costume. The audiences’ imagination has no problem filling in the rest. The costume design even solidified Sally Matthews’s audacious yet loveable characterisation of the titular Vixen. Her vocal performance was confident yet vulnerable when it needed to be, especially alongside Pumeza Matshikiza as the Fox in Act 2, but it was something as mundane as her costume’s pockets that were the key to animating the Vixen’s personality. With her hands tucked into them, she strutted like a zoomorphic James Dean, oozing self-confidence and charismatic cunning.
Lester Lynch’s performance as the Forester sometimes felt overly bulky, not as vocally nimble as the other performers. However, he came into his own in the final act, adeptly capturing his ageing character’s mournful existential musings as a new generation of animals gather around him, many of who are played by children from the ENO’s various outreach projects. The cycle of life repeats itself; the power of nature is not just its beauty, but its promise of life, death, and rebirth.
The arrival of Storm Eunice perfectly made Leoš Janáček’s point for him: Man disregards Nature at his own peril – a message promptly heeded by ENO as they rescheduled Friday’s opening night to a marginally more clement Sunday afternoon.
With the opera’s portentous first line “there’s a storm coming” delivered, the audience is greeted by a host of schoolchildren recruited from local Westminster primaries, all doing their best woodland creature impressions; with varying degrees of success.
Pastoral twee is already a risk in Janáček’s 1924 opera — inspired by the serialised comicstrip adventures of Sharp Ears the talking fox — and Tom Scutt’s costumes fully embrace the naive charm. (Think Isabella Rossellini’s Green Porno crafted by dance mums.) The troupe of broad-brimmed toadstools is a particular highlight. By contrast, greying human characters nurse steel beer kegs whilst espousing midlife regrets, and it’s this balance between the piece’s wholesome and weightier existential themes that is so well-struck in Jamie Manton’s new staging.
Younger incarnations of both the Forester and Vixen act as ghostly witnesses to their older selves, lending depth to an already tragic captor-captive relationship. The Forester’s redemption is made all the more joyful when he literally rediscovers his inner child. Equally I haven’t quite shaken the nightmarish entrance of Dog, his institutionalised and obese pet, ably played by Claire Barnett-Jones in sad clown makeup.
Scutt’s sets are less harmonious. Suspended painted scrolls roll through the cycles of life, a good visual metaphor hanging over a too-utilitarian stage. Modular logging piles allow for easy reconfiguration of space between the industrial human and woodland worlds but confuse rather than aid the action.
Individual performances also vary. Sally Matthew’s titular Vixen competently sustains the impish stage antics and musical heights her role demands but is kept busy fumbling over logs to really sore. ENO debutant Pumeza Matshikiza demonstrates vocal allure as her amorous partner Fox. John Findon’s Cockerel stands out with impressive physicality and baritone Lester Lynch, as a weary but earnest Forester, delivers the performance of the night. Vocal clarity, however, is a problem the entire cast struggles to overcome; especially important with such a jaunty libretto.
In the pit, ENO music director Martyn Brabbins proves a safe pair of hands, entrusted with The Cunning Little Vixen’s greatest strength: Janáček’s sumptuous and spritely score.
Manton’s warm-hearted if somewhat tame production keeps its moments of savagery bloodless, but could still serve ENO well for years to come.
“Never work with children or animals” said W. C. Fields (maybe). Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen – with more biodiversity than The Lion King and more kids than a nativity play – is clearly reading from a different hymn sheet. It’s a story of a fox who, in the illustrious tradition of Foreigner and Mariah Carey, wants to know what love is. She finds another fox to show her and suddenly the forest is populated with two dozen fox cubs, nipping and tucking under bobbing toadstools.
It’s clear why Vixen has been made into an animated children’s movie, but the strength of this new English National Opera production is in pulling darkness through the family-friendly fun.
From the off, everything is concertedly artificial. Long before John Findon arrives as a drag queen Cockerel and Claire Barnett-Jones’ sad-clown dog mopes onstage, shadowy stagehands assemble the set before us. Designer Tom Scutt (straight from West End winners like Cabaret and Jesus Christ Superstar) lays bare the Coliseum’s underbelly: from electrical cords and lighting racks to a fire-exit far upstage.
It’s testament both to Scutt’s shifting set-design and a powerful roster of vocal performances that the space doesn’t feel sparse. Just by rolling plywood backboards downstage, a domestic prison shrinks around the vixen when she’s captured. Likewise, Sally Matthews’ sweet, powerful soprano in the title role (and a warm splash of colour from lighting designer Lucy Carter) movingly shares a deep well of inner freedom as the vixen yearns to escape.
Janáček’s score demands this kind of cohesion between production and performance. Scutt’s design guides us between across the orchestral interludes between singing with an unfurling tapestry-timeline, and Martyn Brabbins conducts his first Janáček at the Coliseum with a clear feel for the music’s capacity for story-telling.
Whether or not you’re a fan of children dressed as frogs, this is a musically rewarding production. Alan Oke impresses with a sonorous lower range and Ossian Huskinson delivers a polished, round performance as the Poacher. Along with Matthews, Lester Lynch stands out, wringing every drop of contrition from his Forester (easily the most multidimensional character in a tableau of civic tropes and fairy-tale animals). On her ENO debut, Pumeza Matshikiza’s Fox emerges from an otherwise bright, ringing performance a little battered by the choppy English consonants, but that’s only noticeable because Matthews’ phrasing so expertly carries her through where Matshikiza loses direction and volume.
Above the vocal highlights the ENO orchestra rises to its best performance of the season. The brass section excels both through the score’s Mussorgsky-style, chunky rotating patterns and it’s shimmering movie-magic. All before blazing Janáček’s final, jazzy extended chords: a fitting musical end to the Vixen’s bittersweet story.
Ultimately, so much effort is paid to mining The Cunning Little Vixen’s darker emotions and twisted meta-dramatics that this production loses its way in the lighter scenes. As the curtain falls on the triumphant first half and a brood of baby foxes first appear, some of the cast are visibly embarrassed by Jenny Ogilvie’s ensemble dance number. Without enough earnest enthusiasm or committed silliness it all looks a bit like an overinflated school musical.
But who can blame some of the cast for rolling their eyes? They’re working with children and animals. Some of them even have to dress up as mushrooms.
The Cunning Little Vixen by Janáček
English National Opera at the London Coliseum 20 Feb 2022
Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen is back at the Coliseum in a strange and attractive production of this strange and attractive piece. As its original source is a newspaper comic strip, this opera is often marketed as though it were a Disney cartoon brought to operatic life. But for all its considerable cuteness, it aims deeper than that. As well as the story of a young fox cub, who escapes from captivity, to breed and get shot by a gamekeeper (not something Walt would have allowed!) we see how the humans in the forest – traumatised by regret, self-pity, and alcohol – find inspiration and hope in the cycle of nature.
For all that this gleaming score was composed during the 1920s, it sounds uncompromisingly modern even today. The jagged ostinatos – almost a form of rapidly changing minimalism – give it a clarity and directness that is instantly accessible. The emotional and musical weight is more in the orchestral writing than the vocal parts. Martyn Brabbins and the ENO orchestra are in complete command of it and the pace feels gloriously spontaneous and eloquent.
I was less sure, to start with, about Jamie Manton’s production. On curtain up, we find ourselves in a timber yard rather than a forest glade. A series of extras in black – timekeepers according to the cast list – move scenery around to rather confusing effect. But things start to become more intelligible when designer Tom Scutt’s inventively costumed insects appear. The Forrester and the Vixen are somewhat confusingly provided with young and adolescent alter egos. A very, very long but rather narrow piece of cloth is slowly lowered from the flies to reflect the changing time of day and the seasons. Towards the end, it depicts the notes of a musical score, which gradually vanish to plain white, reminding us that this opera revels in its intertextuality.
Lester Lynch ‘s bitter- toned Forester (the result of over singing?) is rather sceptical about the value of turning human experience into opera. Pumeza Matshikiza’s gloriously vibrant Fox, on the other hand, tells Sally Matthew’s Vixen (winning, but with patches of hard tone) that he wants to write an opera about her. Their courtship joyously climaxes in multiple children with a fox coloured banner dropping down from the flies every time another fox child appears, conveying the same procreative exhilaration as Papageno and Papagena’s duet in the Magic Flute.
By the end, Manton’s jumbled pieces slot beautifully and movingly into place, as the Forrester is reconciled with his younger selves who return briefly in the his Act 3 scene. He discovers that the frog he meets in Act 3 is actually the grandson of the one he encountered at the start of the opera. He resolves to be kinder to the Vixen’s children from now on and Janáček’s opera works its magic again. Marvellous.
As the curtain rises on Jamie Manton’s new production of The Cunning Little Vixen we see a sparse open set for a moment before the most amazing anthropomorphic Mushrooms plod onto stage like astronauts with puffy white dungarees and shiny red wide brim helmets, shattering any notion that this production will be minimalist. The set remained understated and modular, its focal point an ever-unfurling scroll that aided the narrative with illustrations imagined by Anya Allin and perhaps referencing the comic strip that was Janáček’s inspiration for the opera. There were some brilliant costumes from designer Tom Scutt: the aforementioned Mushrooms, the Chickens, particularly the Cock with his black pvc pantaloons and yellow heeled patent leather boots, and the Dog in an incredible dove grey ruffled clown costume with powder pink clown shoes. The little Frog was a wonder in shiny green with a huge gaping red mouth (portrayed perfectly by Robert Berry-Rose). Comparably the Vixen and Fox costumes were less spectacular in russet jersey harem pants.
Lester Lynch masterfully provided the full spectrum of human emotion, from prideful cynic to childlike wonder. Sally Matthews and Pumeza Matshikiza as Vixen and Fox were well matched: their voices completely distinct but meshed beautifully. Matthews brought a stunning physicality to the title role whilst Matshikiza was more reflective and their chemistry was believable. Claire Barnett-Jones’s literally larger-than-life Dog was captivating, partially due to the ruffled costume that lent itself so well to movement, but Barnett-Jones needed to really own this presence and succeeded. The large number of children on stage further injected energy into the production.
Martyn Brabbins as always offered a safe pair of hands to keep on top of all the action on stage and mostly created room for the children’s voices to reach the audience. Jenny Ogilvie’s movement direction was impressive, capturing the essences of the animals and aptly tackling the difficulties of humans playing animals alongside humans playing humans. The translation felt eerily contemporary, despite being written by the late Yveta Synek Graff and Robert T. Jones in the 80’s, with comments on topics including feminism and capitalism that remain remarkably fresh.
I think it’s an opera that deserves more attention especially as a family friendly story (despite some bawdy humour) than it seems to attract: it contains ideas of the nature of time, our place in the world and how we treat others, with a Pixar quality that means it can be read at face value or the viewer can delve into the story’s meaning. This production in particular had an Alice-in-Wonderland-fever-dream quality to it that provides more than enough to look at even if you don’t understand what’s going on, not to mention it is blissfully short, running under 2 hours.
ENO Response: The Cunning Little Vixen – Grace Creaton-Barber
Opening to a windswept audience, the ENO had its delayed first night of Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen on Sunday 20th February. Abundant in the theatre of anthropomorphism, The Cunning Little Vixen is a unique production – one that, on this occasion, lands just shy of a polished performance.
The Cunning Little Vixen is a visual affair, with song used sparingly and deliberately in aid of its pithy tonality. On the surface, its narrative is simple, but The Cunning Little Vixen is saturated with humour and explores complex social commentary concerning the human and the animal. As these two worlds collide, the audience is drawn into nature’s cyclical manner, joining the humans in their journey of self-realisation.
Underneath The Cunning Little Vixen’s potential for heaviness, director Jamie Manton cleverly preserves an air of lightness and joviality. The story follows the life of Sharp Ears the Vixen (Sally Matthews) who is captured as a cub and raised in the hostile home of the local Forester (Lester Lynch). After a run-in with the male chauvinistic Cock (John Findon), Sharp Ears gains her freedom, and the remainder of the opera tracks her in her natural habitat in conjunction with the Forester in his.
This production of The Cunning Little Vixen is overwhelmingly defined by the clothes it wears, with designer Tom Scutt taking centre stage. For the most part, the theatricality of the costumes is hugely successful, but on some occasions the wackiness deteriorates into obscurity. That being said, each animal certainly has its own character: the Cock is gloriously pompous in his iridescent fabric; the Badger is, as the Vixen describes, the perfect capitalist in his pin-stripe suit and the mushrooms bob around with charming red headdresses. Against a minimalistic and exposed set, the costumes are encouraged to shine in panto-like extravagance, at the expense of the forest atmosphere which is entirely absent. By their nature, such loud costumes demand similarly loud performances. Sadly, the animal characterisations are left wanting in their choreography and, with the exception of the dragonflies and vixens, there is no physicality to the animals’ movement on stage.
Musically however, The Cunning Little Vixen is exceptional, particularly in the clarity of annunciation from Matthews and Lynch. Alan Oke (Schoolmaster) and Clive Bayley (Priest) also deserve mention for their powerfully commanding vocals and full commitment to their comically tragic characters. Sally Matthews as the Vixen abounds in energy and masterfully so, without threatening the strength of her soprano. It is also lovely to see the ENO Engage scheme giving voice to 20 young people in this production, some of whom are from primary schools in the local area. Conductor Martyn Brabbins strikes the perfect orchestral balance, allowing the music to take precedence in the transitional episodes of the narrative and then take a more subtle tract during moments of action on stage.
All in all, an enjoyable evening that is on the refreshingly accessible end of the opera scale.
The Cunning Little Vixen’s plot is perhaps more relevant than ever after our isolation in lockdowns away from our families and nature. Janáček explores the importance of human submission to the environment’s omnipotent cyclical structure, to rekindle passion and joy. (A submission to the natural elements is perhaps ironic as storm Eunice postponed the opening night!) This message is current to a modern audience stuck to the often-draining clockwork of the ‘9-5’ or countless hours glued to Zoom.
Through the animal and human world, Janáček presents how one’s innocence and wonder in childhood is corrupted in adulthood by lust and avarice. Despite The Cunning Little Vixen’s deeper commentary on human nature, it is still marketable to a universal audience. A younger audience would be able to enjoy the glowing costumes and colours of Tom Scrutt’s costume design, much like Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, as Scrutt’s quirky and imaginative designs mirror the scores energy around nature.
Lucy Carter’s lighting design helped drive the narrative and the dull nature of adulthood against the thriving colour palettes of nature and childhood, which was almost cinematic. During Act I, the set representing human life was lit by a dull, flickering haze of a TV Screen, which contrasts with the joyous energy in the Vixen’s escape, heightened by the sunny yellow and golden top light.
Janáček studied the natural cadences and rhythms of Czech, which he then sketched into the score. Does this mean it is impossible to do justice to the libretto translated, as the English dialect is different to Janáček’s intention? During the writing of the Opera, Janáček would wake up at dawn to capture candid sounds of animals and their discourse. Conductor Martyn Brabbins evoked nature’s soundscape with orchestral sections as his toolkit. The gentle glissando’s of violinist (Claire-Louise Sankey) almost captured the musical essence of a grasshopper’s stridulation. Furthermore, the relaxed glistening major seconds in the woodwind section could have mimicked small birds or butterflies ascending across the sky.
The final 10 minutes of the Opera were perhaps the most moving, as we witness The Forester’s stream of consciousness in an Aria as re-connects with his childlike wonder. In the piece: Toktok nejsem ja! (It is not me!) The Forester learns the creatures he is now surrounded by are the grandchildren of the creatures in Act I, shocking the audience of nature’s fast cyclical structure in comparison to the performances 100 minutes. The transcending nature of these final moments were not only moving for The forester but for the audience, making the Opera allegorical, encouraging a reconnection to nature.