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