A paradise we may never want to leave

24 April 2018

Review: West Australian Opera, The Cunning Little Vixen ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 21 April ·
Review by Tiffany Ha ·

What are some of the tropes and images that come to mind when you think of opera? Perhaps you imagine a portly woman with Viking horns, spear outstretched, blasting over a one-hundred-piece orchestra. Perhaps you imagine the great Luciano Pavarotti, portly (why are they always portly?) and robed, moving audiences to tears with his “Nessun Dorma”. Perhaps you imagine an audience of distinguished ladies in furs and gentlemen in tuxedos peering through binoculars.

You probably don’t imagine a scene where one woman screeches to another – multiple times, in English – “you little bitch!” Nor would you imagine a tender love scene between two foxes (played by two women, Emma Pearson and Rachelle Durkin) ending in a bold, protracted kiss. What about a brood of laying hens who consider staging a feminist revolt against their patriarch: a cocksure rooster-slash-Elvis-impersonator? These were some of many delightful surprises in Saturday night’s performance of The Cunning Little Vixen, a daring original production by Victorian Opera, directed by Stuart Maunder and presented by West Australian Opera at His Majesty’s Theatre.

Rebecca Castellini as Cockerel with then Hens v2
The colourful, enchanting world of animals (in contrast to the bleak, mundane world of humans) feels like a paradise we may never want to leave. Pictured: Rebecca Castellini as Cockerel with Hens. Photo: James Rogers.

Czech composer Leoš Janáček wrote the light-hearted, family-friendly opera in the later years of his life, between 1921-1923. His distinctively unique and modern style was shaped by Czech and Slavic folklore and by his desire to synthesise a new musical language without crossing over into atonality. His life had been full of hard work, artistic struggle, and romantic turbulence, but The Cunning Little Vixen was a return to the simple, the everyday. An unexpected, whimsical story about a hunter and a young fox became Janáček’s masterpiece – reflecting on love, nature, beauty, morality and domestic life. Janáček held the work so dear to his heart that he had the opera’s final scene performed at his funeral; here, the old Forester (James Clayton) strolls through the woods, reminiscing about his younger years, when he encounters a young frog who reminds him of the cyclical nature of life and death. He then appears blissful in the acceptance of all that has passed, including the death of his beloved pet fox, Sharp-Ears (Emma Pearson).

The performances from the cast were enthralling and convincing, from the leads to the choruses of insects, birds, forest critters, and villagers. I often forgot the characters were even singing at all, so natural were their vocalisations and gestures (an impressive feat considering some of the very angular, difficult melodies). Janáček based his character’s lines on the rhythms and melodic contours of the vernacular Moravian dialect of the Czech language, which are quite different to those of the English language, and markedly different to the more dramatic, lyrical styles of operatic singing to which we’ve been accustomed in the West.

The Cunning Little Vixen
The performances from the cast were enthralling and convincing, from the leads to the choruses of insects, birds, forest critters, and villagers. Pictured: Paull Anthony Keightley as the Badger. Photo: James Rogers.

Under the baton of Johannes Fritzsch, the orchestra (West Australian Symphony Orchestra) supported the singers’ lines with direct musical imitation and swift call-and-response. They reinforced the somewhat unconventional modalities, the occasional harmonic dissonance, and the idiosyncratic speech rhythms – making the music easier to digest at times. But most of the score is pleasant, subtle and dreamy. The orchestra illustrates the forest setting with bucolic woodwinds, sparse, sparkling strings and declamatory hunting horn calls. The musical style sits somewhere between the impressionistic Debussy and the insistently modern Bartók.

Despite its quirks, and a rather slow-moving, non-linear plot, The Cunning Little Vixen is a joy to watch. It’s uncanny how Janáček’s folk-laden melodies evoke distant childhood memories, even for those who grew up on the other side of the world. Stuart Maunder’s vibrant, forward-thinking production – with its minimal staging, tongue-in-cheek costumes, and astoundingly detailed approach to characterisation – feels positively alive. The colourful, enchanting world of animals (in contrast to the bleak, mundane world of humans) feels like a paradise we may never want to leave. But, like an old fairy tale, there are lessons to be learned and wisdom to be gained; after all, meaning and morality are the very things that make us human.

The Cunning Little Vixen plays His Majesty’s Theatre April 24, 26 and 28.

Top: A tender love scene between two foxes: Rachelle Durkin as the Fox and Emma Pearson as the Vixen. Photo: James Rogers.

Like what you're reading? Support Seesaw.

Author —
Tiffany Ha

Tiffany Ha is a pianist, composer, arranger, music educator and vocalist with a soft spot for anything a cappella. She has degrees in Music (Composition) and Arts (English) from UWA and works as a freelance musician. Her favourite playground equipment is anything that involves climbing and balance: monkey bars, rope towers, trees, human pyramids!

Past Articles

  • Oriental taster not enough to satisfy

    HIP Company’s ‘Chinoiserie’ is a wonderful blend of Western and traditional Chinese instruments but the lack of a true cultural intersection leaves Tiffany Ha wanting something more.

  • Havana Nights – ready to rumba

    The State Theatre Centre takes on a Latin party vibe for Havana Nights and Tiffany Ha finds herself caught up in the rhythm.

Read Next

  • Kiki Saito and Matthew Lehmann in Nils Christe's Before Nightfall. Photo by Bradbury Photography copy Two West Australian ballet dancers on stage - a woman is perched on one pointe, her other leg extended upwards in a split. She arches back, supported by a male dancer. Hitting high notes at 70

    Hitting high notes at 70

    25 June 2022

    Traversing a range of human emotion, West Australian Ballet’s latest triple bill is an evening of beautifully performed contemporary dance, reports Kim Balfour.

    Reading time • 6 minutesDance
  • Cabaret festival. A singer wearing a fur hat is on stage with a pianist, guitarist and drummer. We can see the dress circle seats of the theatre in the background lit in a greenish light. Tributes to musical idols light up stage

    Tributes to musical idols light up stage

    23 June 2022

    A cabaret veteran and opera performer bring very different interpretations of the greats of classical, jazz and pop in the second week of the Perth International Cabaret Festival, writes David Zampatti

    Reading time • 6 minutesCabaret
  • A semi circle of 8 singers, with one standing in the centre, facing an audience. They are in a large hall and there are cnadles, chairs and pot plants decorating the floor around them. Vanguards bring poetry to vocal music

    Vanguards bring poetry to vocal music

    20 June 2022

    Armchair poets become legends in their own lunchtimes in Vanguard Consort’s imaginative Saturday Night Poetry, writes Claire Coleman.

    Reading time • 5 minutesMusic

Leave a comment

Cleaver Street Studio

Cleaver Street Studio

Cleaver Street Studio