Saturday, 20 March 2010
Cunning Little Vixen, Royal Opera
There's a pleasant irony in Rob Bryden's production (that's not it above!!) of Janácek's The Cunning Little Vixen being twenty years old, in that half the (prepubescent) cast won't have been alive. The piece is all about marrying the long, rose-tinted view backwards with the zest and restless wonder of youth. That is what this production manages with its big top staging effects and entertaining costuming, and helmed by the undisputed magus of this music, 84-year-old Sir Charles Mackerras.
It is a remarkably tricky piece to pull off though. There are a number of children's roles, which are indeed assigned to children. This has its own charm but presents balancing issues. Added to this, the score is an etiolated affair, delicate and skittish. The effect of full orchestral bloom can be, consequently, overwhelming - the first act dream, the second act love duet and the glorious, life-affirming close to all three - but there's a lack of argument which I'd find frustrating were I not simply flushed with a genuine joie de vivre at the onwards rush of melody and the proto-hippie nature-wonder.
In this run of performances, the Vixen is sung by Australian Emma Matthews, with whom I was unfamiliar. She's everything Janácek's Vixen should be, singing and acting hand-in-glove, a golden, present tone never obviously having to fight for space with all manner of on-stage shenanigans. Above all, she makes it sound easy, which it is not.
With its lifecycle-of-fox foretext, this piece is about the Vixen but I often wonder if the Forester is the key principal. Christopher Maltman performed this role quite beautifully, treating the stretches of arioso as if the whole opera were yet another of Janácek's dramatised song cycles. There was such comfort in his voice - to those of use of a certain age in the audience - as he puts the Forester about his business, managing his work, friends and domesticity with equanimity and great warmth. Just so, very touching (and good, unobtrusive support from Robin Leggate & Jeremy White in this too).
Perhaps the most startling drama of the evening was off-stage, as it was announced that Emma Bell, due to play the Fox had been taken ill (she has had an emergency operation to remove her appendix). This is a shame as Bell is a thrilling singer-actress. However, with commendable resolve the Royal Opera went to Bell's cover, the Jette Parker Young Artist Elisabeth Meister, to take over. This was a remarkable debut under the circumstances. More than just secure, Meister is charismatic, entertaining and a natural fit with Matthews, singing freely and with considerable dynamic control into the bargain. The inevitably rowdy curtain call was well-deserved. I also enjoyed Matthew Rose's poacher, perfectly cast.
A delightful production of a delightful but - and this is a caveat to meet head-on - tricky opera. The pit is a petri-dish of treachery in this respect. Naturally, with the man one might consider the greatest living interpreter of Janácek there was no bother... though I felt that there were strange, temporary bald patches. Mackerras is not a young man any more (indeed, he took his fulsome curtain call from the podium). Whilst the music that irradiated from the stage and pit was halcyon, unfettered by artifice, I also felt its wit was a mite blunt.
Altogether a special evening to be in the Covent Garden auditorium. As if to make the point, a howl of horror from a toddler as the Vixen is shot in act 3 was greeted with a titter of compassion from the audience, a sure sign that the opera had hit its mark well before the curtain.