animal passion animates the most curious of operas

Shaken by the storm, Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen went from a canceled Friday night premiere to a Sunday afternoon opening – but she emerged fresh and strong in this update hosted by English National Opera and the director Jamie Manton.

The natural world, and our treatment of its creatures, is at the heart of this unusual 1924 work, which tells the story of a forester in a Czech village who captures and guards a vixen; we follow her as she escapes and grows tall, only to be shot by another villager. Janáček’s score duly teems with forest sounds and countryside noises. Not that there’s a lot of pleasant greenery glimpsed in this radical take on designer Tom Scutt, who places the opera house on the bare outline of the Colosseum stage and fills it, rather menacingly, with pallets and industrial logs.

When set in a natural arcadia, The Cunning Little Vixen can often feel twee and cozy, but here the focus is on the weakness of humans and the adversity faced by young animals. Time passes, symbolized by a huge descending banner, as nature regenerates – but not before the death of the vixen, in a shocking moment that takes away any idea that this is just a story. It was Janáček’s own addition to the Brno newspaper comic strip story that inspired the piece. He said he wanted to create “a happy thing with a sad ending”, making the forester’s interactions with nature a subtle blend of pleasure and pain.

One of Manton’s brilliant ideas is to represent the Vixen with three actors of different ages (the same device is used for the Dragonfly and the Forester). Sally Matthews sings it with force, even if she hasn’t yet inhabited the liveliness of the character, which comes across as a bit bland, and the text isn’t entirely clear either. There is more vitality from Pumeza Matshikiza than his devoted Fox, projecting himself offstage with great conviction. Some ENO stalwarts play the villagers, with Alan Oke as the schoolmaster and Clive Bayley as the priest, doubling the roles of Mosquito and Badger respectively, and their path with the text is scrupulously clear, their characters drawn sardonically.

ENO has a long history with this opera – indeed its predecessor, Sadler’s Wells Opera, gave the first performances in Britain – so it’s fitting that the company is leading the way in giving it a contemporary edge. And as the flavor of the moment is participation, it was something to see 20 local Westminster primary school children as lively foxes, singing beautifully and providing small but vital animal parts, including Robert Berry-Roe in stuttering frog. won the award. A total hit, too, was Lester Lynch’s Forester, drawn to the Vixen from the first moment, singing to nature with glorious passion in the final act.

A certain amount of this production needs on-stage tidying up (the vixen’s departure after her death is oddly handled), but the focus will no doubt improve as the storms die down. Ultimately, Janáček’s impact lies in the precision and clarity of the orchestral sounds, and Martyn Brabbins achieved transparent and expressive playing from the ENO Orchestra, which fuels the show. It’s a worthy reimagining of one of the most adorable operas of the last century.


Until March 1. Tickets: 020 7845 9300; eno.org