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S & H Opera Review

English Touring Opera at Richmond Theatre, October 2002 (JM)


Between 1919 and 1925 Janacek composed three of his finest operas, all on subjects with special resonances for him: Katya Kabanova with its neglected wife who takes a lover, The Cunning Little Vixen with its sympathetic portrayal of animals (and particularly the female fox), and The Makropoulos Affair’ with the 'ageless' woman who fascinates all men.

The ETO staged Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen on 23 October in the Richmond Theatre as part of their autumn tour. James Conway, ETO’s new General Director, directed Janacek’s rather convoluted ‘opera within an opera’ in a conventional way. A group of rural people enact for a wedding the story of the Vixen and yet the distinction between the animal and human worlds is blurred in this production. This is not entirely their fault because, in spite of Janacek’s beautiful, gestural music, The Cunning Little Vixen has big dramaturgical flaws: there are too many roles whose characters are not properly developed and there is no time and space to get emotionally involved with any of the characters.

The single, static stage design - probably down to financial and travelling constraints – didn’t help bring clarity and with costumes and lighting design they could have done more. As it was, the stage was cluttered with props which didn’t reveal their purpose and the general impression of the stage design was messy, something underlined by the painted black and white forest used as a backdrop for the whole opera.

All the singers produced wonderful sounds, which is particularly remarkable in the dry acoustic of the Richmond Theatre. Louise Walsh, in the double role as Vixen and Terynka, was great, although I felt pity for her knees as she had to crawl across the stage a lot of the time. Charles Johnston as the forester/headman had a warm, deep voice.

The orchestra played well. The brass section had a few glitches. Occasionally I found that the conductor, Andrew Greenwood, should have restrained the orchestra to give the singers more space. The double bass was sometimes too loud. The dry unforgiving acoustics of the Richmond Theatre didn’t help to mould the players into a homogenous sound. Jonathan Dove rearranged the score for a reduced orchestra, which might also have disturbed the balance.

The following night a revival of Don Giovanni was shown. This wonderful piece of comedy and horror was brilliantly performed under the baton of Dominic Wheeler in fast tempos and with great energy. Clear, effective stage and light design was complemented by beautiful costumes set in the 1950s. The acting of all the singers was exceptional, especially the comic parts of Don Giovanni (D’Arcy Bleiker) and Leporello (Daniel Jordan) in the first half of the opera. Indeed, the singing of Daniel Jordan is world class! The contrasting turn from comedy to horrific tragedy wasn’t as strong as it could have been. I suspect this is partly due to the lack of orchestra size and reverberation, which would have given The Commendatore (Deryck Hamon) even more weight to his imposing voice.

The orchestra, especially the brass and string section, need more practice to create a homogenous, well- tuned sound. For a touring opera with fluctuating members this is difficult to achieve. It is up to the conductors to work on this. Having said this, however, ETO is a great enterprise and it is a fantastic idea to bring opera to smaller towns which cannot afford their own companies.

The ETO tour will visit Buxton Opera House, Wolverhampton Grand Theatre, Theatre Royal Bath. For further details see

Jean Martin


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