Available until: 26th February at about 6pm
I thought I didn’t know this opera at first, but then I looked more closely. The Cunning Little Vixen. Of course.
There are a few operas around with animals in, but not many, and those that do exist tend to be more for children. But you wouldn’t let your child watch this opera unless they were very tough. It’s a brilliant opera and the animals are always great to watch, but it’s very sad.
Most operas have a great love story and this opera almost has two. Involving the same woman. The first is the more conventional love story involving the Vixen and the Fox. The second is the love-hate relationship between the Vixen and the Forester. The Vixen gets on his nerves one too many times and the Forester doesn’t like it. Yet at the same time, he can’t help admiring her. Her intelligence. Her beauty. And I think there’s also a part of the Vixen that is also captivated by the Forester, who cared for her when she was a cub. Most animals have a strong sense of preservation and will avoid danger wherever possible, but the Vixen doesn’t want to avoid the Forester.
Leoš Janáček has composed an exceptionally beautiful opera. The music is lovely to listen to, as his music always is, but he’s done more than that. He’s put the sounds of the forest into his music and the effect of it is really incredible. Conductor Tomaš Netopil does such a brilliant job of bringing out every layer of the music, letting us hear the sounds of the forest even when the characters are conversing.
But it’s Amra Buchbinder’s set that amazes me the most. I’ve never seen anything like it on a stage before. It has grass, trees and mud. It has sludgy, uneven steps and underground homes. It looks as though it’s been filmed outside, but it hasn’t. They really have managed to turn the stage into a forest.
Emmerich Steigberger’s lighting is amazing too. There’s a lovely blue light for night time, which gives the impression of darkness whilst making it very easy to see the set and the characters. (It would actually probably be quite dangerous if the singers couldn’t see!)
The animals are brilliant. Director Otto Schenk obviously wanted to create a woodland that looked like woodland with animals who looked like animals and moved in a realistic way and it’s a wonderful production. The animals have really good costumes so they look like what they’re supposed to be and they’ve also been trained in how to move and at first glance, I wondered for a minute if they did have real animals on the stage. That’s how good they are.
Chen Reiss is vocally and physically the perfect Vixen. Her voice is sweet but strong, with both beauty and power. She leaps around the stage, her movements athletic and lithe, as though she’s always been a vixen. She’s really lovely. Possibly the only girl I’ve ever wanted to take home with me, even though I’ve seen for myself what a troublesome pet she is! Hyuna Ko displays similar movements as the swaggering but kind Fox, though more masculine, her soprano blending perfectly with Chen’s.
There’s so much else to enjoy in this incredible forest. Marcus Pelz’s fuddy-duddy badger, Hana Hrdlicka’s incredible jumping frog, Heinz Zednik’s strutting rooster and all his chickens with their careful, delicate walk. Then there is a whole family of playful little cubs. Even the most annoying insects look attractive.
It would be easy for the humans to fade into the background a bit but they’re really interesting too. Roman Trekel is stressed and obsessed as the Forester but still capable of the most moving singing. Joseph Dennis’ moody, uninterested Schoolmaster is a great characterisation and the badger reappears in human form as a rather gossipy Priest. Paolo Rumetz’ poacher Harašta makes less impression as he slinks around, but perhaps that’s why he’s so good at getting what he wants.
Apart from the Vixen herself, there aren’t that many female characters and those that do appear have small roles, but it does kind of feel as though women control the opera. Almost everything the male characters do and think about is related to females. The Fox is probably the most decisive male character, but so much of what he does is based around the Vixen. Though I think opera in general needs to find a new word for ‘muff’. You need to be very careful talking about a girl’s ‘muff’. It’s not a place where girls warm their hands. At least… actually, let’s not think about it. Let’s think about this wonderful opera instead.