Leos Janacek’s three-act opera, The Cunning Little Vixen, is a peculiar beast – part children’s folk tale, part tragedy, part modestly profound meditation on the cycle of life. It’s a difficult piece to mount successfully, but Opera North’s production – full of wit and charm, and with a laugh out loud take on the libretto – gets closer than most.
Weary and somewhat the worse for wear, Revirnik, the forester, muses on the passing years. He recalls the passion of his wedding night, the morning after which he “couldn’t move a muscle.” These days, however, his marriage is less than happy so he seeks consolation in beer and work. “You are my only lover,” he tells his rifle before settling down for a snooze. Not even the bite of a thirsty mosquito wakes him, though the insect soon rues imbibing blood with such a high alcohol content.
A playful young vixen chases a frog into the sleeping forester’s lap. He wakes and shoos the “slimy bugger” away, before seizing the poor little vixen and carrying her home with him.
Vixen Sharp-Ears never settles to captivity. By the time she has grown she’s had more than enough of the cruelty of the forester’s wife and sons, not to mention the amorous attentions of their “lonely bachelor” dog. With a rousing feminist and anti-capitalist speech, Sharp-Ears tries to foment rebellion among the hens. However, when the recidivist fowl refuse to reject the “naked exploitation” of the cocky cockerel, the vixen ruthlessly and swiftly dispatches them, one by one (the staging is clever and witty, rather than gory), and makes her escape.
Back in the forest, Sharp-Ears encounters a handsome young fox, Gold-Stripe, who wins her over by convincing her he cares more for her soul than her body (the fact that she’s an “independent householder” having forcibly evicted the “plutocrat” Badger, no doubt smooths the course of true love). They marry (in a hurry!) and have so many cubs they lose count.
Do they live happily ever after? One of the admirable aspects of this opera is that it does not shy away from the truth that life holds sadness and even cruelty. In order to prolong and propagate, life must consume life.
As the seasons change – represented with simple grace by the leaves on the forest branches – renewal and rebirth are partnered with decline and decay. “I’m just a dried up mop in a bucket,” laments one character.
When leaves fall and the landscape whitens (hats off to dancers negotiating the humps and hollows of the forest hillside) old men regret lost sexual prowess, sliding and falling as they go. Not much dignity here – and perhaps that is the point. Rather than whining that the younger poacher/poultry dealer, Harasta, gets to wed the much-desired Teryinka, the older men need to understand their part in the process.
On his final visit, the forester encounters a young frog, who turns out to be the grandson of the original “slimy bugger”. At last, Revirnik begins to see the truth and is at peace. Though winter frosts may cause hapless old men to slide and fall foolishly, Spring will follow, along with rebirth and the joyous frolicking of the young. Life is a continuous cycle, and we are blessed to be a part of it.
Elin Pritchard is a bouncy, defiantly mischievous Vixen, ably squired by Heather Lowe’s Fox. James Rutherford amuses and commands as the Forester, and Callum Thorpe’s Harasta the poacher deserves a warmer ovation.
David Poutney’s direction is packed with motion and fun, but not afraid of stillness where needed. Maria Bjornson’s set and costumes pair well with Nick Chelton’s lighting to create the passing seasons.
As so often, the Opera North orchestra, guided by Andrew Gourlay, bring the whole together and carry it along in style.
Better suited to the seasoned opera-goer than a first-timer, The Cunning Little Vixen is a fascinating but fragmented piece, requiring an audience to bear with it and appreciate its quirks. This Opera North production amply rewards such commitment.
Opera North – The Cunning Little Vixen is at The Lowry from 7-8 March 2023