Stage Door Review 2024

The Cunning Little Vixen

Sunday, January 28, 2024


The Cunning Little Vixen

by Leoš Janáček, directed by Jamie Manton

Canadian Opera Company, Four Seasons Centre, Toronto

January 26-February 16, 2024

Vixen: “The forest was darker than night, but I felt free!”

The Canadian Opera Company is presenting its first production of by Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen since 1998. This is one of the Czech master’s most delightful works and the music is full of humour and veneration for the power of nature. The COC Orchestra under Johannes Debus plays with vitality and sensitivity and the cast sings with feeling and precision. If only the design did not so fully clash with the lushness of the score, the production could have achieved greatness.

Janáček composed The Cunning Little Vixen (Příhody lišky Bystroušky, the original, meaning “Tales of Vixen Sharp Ears”) in 1923 when he was 74, just five years before he died. Janáček wrote the libretto himself based on the novella of the same name (1921) by Rudolf Těsnohlídek. In the libretto as in the novella, a Forester catches a beautiful vixen and is so taken with her he tries to domesticate her. The vixen, though, remains wild, and once she has the chance, she escapes to the forest. The story follows both the follies of human beings like the Forester, the Schoolmaster and the Bishop and the adventures of Sharp Ears the vixen. Her greatest adventure is falling in love for the first time. The object of her affection is Gold-Stripe the Fox. When she realizes she is pregnant, Sharp Ears insists that she and Gold-Stripe get married, and Act 2 ends with their colourful wedding celebration.

What Janáček emphasizes far more than Těsnohlídek is the cycle of life and how death is part of this cycle: children replace their parents, the young in general replace the old. The Forester shoos away a frog in Act 1. In Act 3 he sees what he thinks is the same frog and asks him what he is still doing there. The frog replies, “I’m not the one you think... that was my grandfather…” This emphasis is on the cycle of life is what gives depth and unity to what is otherwise an episodic tale of miscellaneous events. Director Jamie Manton is aware of this and uses the members of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company to serve as younger versions of some of the animal and human characters we will see later.

It is unfortunate, then, that the action unfolds against Tom Scott’s highly unattractive set. Its prime feature is a large scroll suspended above the stage that slowly unfurls with the music. Manion uses this scroll to provide a completely unnecessary background story in pictures of the past relationship of Forester and the Vixen. The scroll shows them both as infants together and follows their relationship with a timeline to the present when the Forester is 60. This is a case of the director trying to turn a fable into some sort of fictional dual biography. Even if we ignore that fact the oldest known fox died at 16, Manton’s background is irrelevant. In the opera, the Forester finally traps the Vixen when he is 60 and that’s all we need to know.

As a beast fable Vixen should be a gift to designers with imagination and wit, but Scutt’s costume designs are only partly successful. His jumpsuit designs for Sharp Ears and her beau Gold-Stripe are excellent, keeping their faces visible and avoiding their having to wear fake fur. Yet when we see a huge, fluffy, spherical object it is impossible to identify it as a dog until Sharp Ears refers to it as such. The rooster’s colourful costume is great and so are those of the hens. But many animals are never addressed or introduced by name with the result that we know what only a few of the forest’s denizens represent. Scutt’s costumes for the fly agaric mushrooms are very clever, but who are the people in black with droopy hats like inkcap mushrooms have a large white splotch on their stomachs? They’re called “Timekeepers” in the programme without explanation. Many of the birds and insects Scutt designs are unidentifiable.

The least attractive aspect of the production are Scutt’s sets. Although most of the action takes place in the forest, Scutt’s set consists of six plywood and pressboard boxes on trucks with one side removed. Inside we see what are supposed to be piles of logs, but they are so regular they look like plastic pipes painted brown. The people with inkcap headwear move these trucks about almost constantly but to little effect. The few actual painted trees we see are on banners which suddenly fall down or on the scroll telling the tale of the Forester and the Vixen. These are black and grey and in no way reflect the glowing, shifting colours of nature continually emanating from the orchestra.

So, what is the point of all these logs and no trees? The sad answer is that Manton the director has felt that Janáček’s opera has to be made relevant. In the summary of the action, we read of the Forester and the Vixen, “Their encounter inspires a poignant reflection on the natural cycle of life and death, as well as our relationship with the planet”. The first part of the sentence is certainly true, but the second part suggests that the opera is somehow about ecology. It is not. The acceptance of the cycle of life and death is a large philosophical concept into which the protest of man’s despoiling nature does not fit. At the end the Forester accepts things the way they are in nature, including the sudden death of the Vixen. The implication is that mankind is happiest when living in harmony with nature. To narrow this idea in the opera to a critique for deforestation is to constrict Janáček’s all-encompassing world view.

Despite the fact that the director and the designer are often tone-deaf to what Janáček’s libretto and, above all, his music are saying, luckily the orchestra and the cast are fully in tune with the score. Though the opera has a very large cast its effect rests entirely with only two characters – the Forester and the Vixen. Jane Archibald is absolutely wonderful as the Vixen. This is a role unlike all other opera roles and Archibald seems to relish tracing the Vixen’s progress from wild pre-adulthood to the stirrings of maturity to the joy of motherhood. Her singing is flawless. She is completely at home in Janáček’s ever-changing rhythms and tosses off high notes with panache.

In contrast to the natural world embodied in the Vixen is the world of man embodied in the aged Forester. Baritone Christopher Purves sings the role with delightful warmth and good humour – a complete change from the perpetually incensed Alberich he gave us in Siegfried in 2016. Purves is excellent at conveying a tone of admiration for the Vixen despite all the trouble she causes him. Purves’s Forester laughs at the follies of his fellow humans who struggle with personal relationships unlike the animals for whom relationships are quite straightforward. Purves shades the full power of his voice with wonder when he sings the Forester’s long final statement of the fragility of memory – “Is it a fairy-tale or is it all true?” – and of the eternal beauty of nature – “People will pass by with heads bowed down and they will come to understand that supernatural bliss has come their way”. Purves brings out the full beauty of this sequence so well that we can understand why Janáček specified that it be sung at his funeral.

The third-largest role in an opera of innumerable tiny roles, is that of Gold-Stripe the (male) Fox, a trousers-role sung with vitality and emotion by Ema Nikolovska. Nikolovska’s bright mezzo-soprano blends well with Archibald’s high soprano. Manton has directed the courting scene between the Vixen and the Fox with the greatest care and attention to nuance, making it the highpoint of the opera. Here Archibald and Nikolovska display their fine acting skills in depicting how both animals feel attraction for the other but don’t know quite how to express it, how they burst with joy when they realize their feelings are reciprocated and shock during the brief crisis when the Vixen realizes she’s pregnant.

Other fine work is done by Giles Tomkins as the Parson and the oddly zebra-striped Badger, Megan Latham as the Forester’s bored wife and as the spritely Owl, Alex Halliday as the cocky young Poacher and Wesley Harrison as the Schoolmaster, although one would think the character was a new graduate rather than an elderly man. Members of the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus are an immense pleasure as the Vixen’s 17 lively little cubs.

Janáček intended that ballet be integrated into the opera. Jenny Ogilvie’s choreography is attractive, but the score suggests much more dance that there is. It is good to see Jane Johanson on stage again, this time as an aged Dragonfly. Manton (not Janáček) has the odd idea to have a Dragonfly survey the entire course of the action, forgetting that the action needs no onstage observer, much less such ephemeral being as a dragonfly.

The playing of the COC Orchestra under Johannes Debus is glorious. Janáček composed his music of numerous short motifs that shirt through the orchestra during their frequent repetition. Debus and the orchestra have completely mastered Janáček’s fascinatingly idiosyncratic tone-world, Debus intuitively knowing how to mold the motifs into phrases and how to build the music to the stunning finales of each act. It is this vibrant playing, the beautiful singing and sensitive acting of the cast that cause me to rate the production so highly.

It is a pity that the design so poorly reflects the scintillating colours of the music, but it is music of such greatness it must be heard. It is more than 25 years since the COC last staged The Cunning Little Vixen. Let’s hope we do not have to wait another 25 for it to come around again. In the meanwhile, we have not heard Janáček’s most performed opera Jenůfa since 2003 or his next most popular opera Kát’a Kabanová since 1994. It’s Richard Bradshaw who began a Janáček cycle in 1989 with The Markopoulos Case that continued after his death with 2008 with From the House of the Dead in 2008. It’s this cycle that caused Torontonians to embrace Janáček as the great composer he is. Perhaps it is time for another cycle to begin.

Christopher Hoile

Photo:  Jane Archibald as the Vixen and Giles Tomkins as the Badger with the chorus of Hens; Ema Nikolovska as the Fox and Jane Archibald as the Vixen; Jane Archibald as the Vixen and Christopher Puves as the Forester; Jane Archibald as the Vixen with the chorus of Fox Cubs. © 2024 Michael Cooper.

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