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Janáček, The Cunning Little Vixen, Soloists, British Youth Opera & Southbank Sinfonia, Alex Ingrams (conductor), QEH, 12th September, 2004 (MB)

 

Janáček’s cunning little operatic allegory is as much about dance, pantomime and comedy as it is the voice and British Youth Opera’s performance of it was masterly at uniting all its disparate elements into one entertaining evening. Even in the enclosed acoustic of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, with its small proscenium, usually unsuitable for staged opera, this was an admirable achievement.

 

That I was not convinced this is Janáček at his best is the fault of no one. British Youth Opera succeeded in giving a highly balanced performance that would have surely pleased the composer’s intentions of an opera that should work both visually and vocally. Orchestrally, too, in a markedly reduced scoring of the opera that kept its colourful orchestration intact, Alex Ingrams drilled his forces to shape their musical vocabulary with exemplary skill. The bristling score, with its evocative sound bites of the murmuring forest, came across convincingly. Security in the woodwind playing more than suggested the clicking of woodland insects, and the instrumental voices of a hidden underworld of animals and birds were persuasively characterised.

 

One might quibble with some of Stephen Medcalf’s staging: the use of adults as chickens when the composer preferred children, the sometimes crowded stage direction, but in other matters he was exemplary. The image of a frog leaping onto the Forester was naturally funny, the slaughter of the chickens, with red turtlenecks drawn high above the face to suggest a ceremonial throat-slitting, and the inherent sexualisation of the Vixen herself were stand-out moments. Clever use of the sides of the stage brought the action into the audience, and there was a rich tapestry to suggest the forest, even if to this reviewer it looked a little on the threatening side. But then, Janáček’s darker nature is as much inherent in this opera as it is in any of his more psychologically challenging ones.

 

 

Vocally, British Youth Opera has always been capable of astute casting and that was the case here too. Lucy Crowe’s Vixen was beautifully rounded – she is a singer actress capable of filtering a tenebrous and shivering quality to her voice whilst performing cartwheels soon after. I’ve rarely seen such an energised Vixen as here. At times she displayed humanity as well as vulnerability in her voice (her duo with Jennifer Johnston’s Dog was especially heartfelt) and yet there was also something acutely erotic about her performance. David Stout’s excellently sung Forester was part heroic – part menacing and he shaped his phrasing imperiously. More than noteworthy were Malin Christensson’s Fox, Edmund Connolly’s Haraŝta and Olivia Ray’s Terynka. One could not be anything other than riveted by the wonderfully danced Dragonfly of Francesco Mangiacasale, a dancer who brought both real and implied grace and beauty to every step he took.

 

On this showing, British opera and dance has a healthy future.

 

 

Marc Bridle

 

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