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Julia Gasper / Opera / Oxford / Oxford Brookes University / Oxford University / Oxfordshire / Review / Theatre

The Cunning Little Vixen.

A review by Julia Gasper

Welsh National Opera at New Theatre Oxford 21st November 2019.

Janacek’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen, written nearly a century ago, combines singing with ballet and has a half-serious half-comical libretto. It is a tale of animals struggling for existence in a world ruled by humans, and its setting in the countryside is said to be influenced by Janacek’s nostalgia for his native Moravia. The plot was actually suggested by an illustrated story serialized in a newspaper. But despite some amusing dialogue there is nothing cosy about this vision of nature: it is red in tooth and claw, full of savagery. If we expect a tale about anthropomorphized animals to be either childish or tritely didactic, it does not turn out that way.

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Owls, jays, woodpeckers, mosquitos, and dragonflies inhabit the forest along with foxes, badgers and squirrels, interacting as the seasons pass. All the costumes are imaginative and fantastic, and the creatures dance and play when not devouring each other or hiding, terrified, from people with their guns and tramping boots. The young vixen Sharp-Ears is performed by a little girl, with her red hair in pigtails, and it is rather disturbing when the forester captures her, crying “Mummy! Mummy!” He takes her to his home and tries to domesticate her. But the attempt fails. She is fierce, feral and untameable. She refuses to play with his children. She bites! She tells the chickens that they are exploited by the male chauvinist cockerel and ought to rebel. When they won’t, she kills the lot of them, then escapes from the kennel back into the wild where she belongs.

The grown-up Vixen is sung – and danced – by Aoife Miskelly, in a variety of costumes including a tawny-coloured fur coat, for the winter, and a fringed dress, with a feather boa, for the summer, showing how the fox’s fur changes seasonally. She cheekily appropriates the sett of a badger, accusing him of being a rich landowner and saying she wants to re-distribute property and make a fairer society. Undoubtedly Janacek enjoyed putting some contemporary political polemic into this tale, and making it sound funny coming from the mouth of animals.

The romance between the Vixen and the Fox (sung by Lucia Cervoni) is the most human bit of the story. The Fox woos her ardently, promising that he really loves her and will write poems and an opera to prove it! When they are married, by a priest who seems to be a bird, the other animals celebrate, rejoice and cavort with a ballet. In the next Act, behold! There are eight little foxes sprung from their union, all tawny and danced by children, tumbling and rolling around the stage.

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The human characters in the story seem less alive than the animals. The Forester is gloomy, and the schoolmaster and the parson – his drinking companions, whom he meets at the local pub – seem to be sad and repressed. They are all aging and grey. The schoolmaster remembers once being in love with a girl, Terynka, but he did not dare ask her to marry him. It seems significant that at the end of the story it is the poacher who does obtain Terynka’s hand. The poacher is, like the Vixen, an outlaw, an irrepressible rule-breaker and ruthless killer. She kills the Hare when she needs to, to feed her children. The poacher, in revenge for the little foxes taking his bag of plunder, shoots the vixen dead. It is a shocking moment, held still with a tableau on stage. He then steals her tawny pelt, as a gift for Terynka (who never appears). The pelt could be a symbol of the fox’s vitality, her irrepressible spirit, or her femaleness.

I found myself reminded of D.H. Lawrence’s stories from the same period, particularly The Fox, in which animals represent vitality and instinct, while humans are portrayed as over-civilized, repressed and domesticated like their own chickens. Vitality and sexuality are represented by wild creatures, and by people such as the poacher who live a semi-wild existence. The fox’s pelt is tawny like pubic hair and can be a symbol of the vital instinct, associated with Terynka and the Vixen.

The opera’s ending, with the Forester singing a pean to Nature at the height of summer, seems to me beautiful but slightly uneasy as we have seen so much of the harsher side of the life cycle.

The music is extraordinary, expressive, and like the vixen, full of vitality, using a range of orchestral sounds that tell the story sympathetically. This is a colourful and entertaining production that should persuade many people who think 20th-century music is still “difficult” to think again.

                                             Julia Gasper

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