The Cunning Little Vixen review – pulsing with life

Glyndebourne, East Sussex
Elena Tsallagova is magnetic as a vivacious Vixen Sharp-Ears in this sumptuous revival of Melly Still’s tenderly cartoonish production

The Cunning Little Vixen ought to work better at Glyndebourne than almost anywhere else. Perhaps in the long interval the audience should be encouraged to leave their picnics and the manicured gardens and trespass on the surrounding countryside, listening for woodpeckers, gazing at dragonflies, batting away mosquitoes and sniffing the air for the scent of fox piss. An earthy, unsentimental sense of connection between the human and animal worlds is something Janáček sought with this 1923 opera, and this revival of Melly Still’s production achieves it better than most.

First seen in 2012, the staging has returned with a new cast and conductor and with a few tweaks, including repositioning the long interval between the second and third acts – more sensible than breaking the second act in half, and anyway, it gives the Vixen and Fox time to make all those cubs. The conductor is Jakub Hrůša, and under his direction the London Philharmonic make this quicksilver score sound sumptuous, at times almost Straussian, and pulsing with life.

Still’s production is cartoonish, but tenderly so. Tom Pye’s set, dominated by a huge tree, looks simple but is full of opportunities for theatrical sleight of hand. Animals appear through hidden holes in the stage, then seem to be absorbed back into it. Dancing mayflies court, then mate, and then pack away their shimmering silk costumes and sink into the earth. Seasons change in an instant, with a billowing cloth of snow or a change in the colour of the cloud-like leaves. Extending up the back of the stage is a twisting pathway which, thanks to some brave face-down abseiling and tricks of perspective, can make the human characters seem to stride into the scene from a long way off; alternatively, when Paule Constable’s lighting changes, it’s a cutaway view of the foxes’ burrow. There are fussy touches to Dinah Collin’s costumes – the foxes have to carry their huge bushy tails in their hands, and these become an encumbrance – but more often they are artfully suggestive, or just joyously exuberant.

The Cunning Little Vixen at Glyndebourne.
The Cunning Little Vixen at Glyndebourne. Photograph: Richard Hubert Smith

This is an ensemble work, and there are lots of good cameos, including from the children of Glyndebourne Youth Opera and Trinity Boys Choir, who provide some impressive soloists and make a feisty chorus of fox cubs. Elena Tsallagova is a magnetic presence as a vivacious, fidgety Vixen Sharp-Ears, and her soprano gleams. Alžběta Poláčková is the mellow-sounding Fox, and Colin Judson’s clarion tenor shines as both the Schoolmaster and, briefly, a bloodlust-crazed Mosquito, eyeing up Hrůša for juiciness. Next to such Technicolor creatures the humans look deliberately drab, but even in monochrome Christopher Purves still fills the stage as the Forester, the one human who seems to have gained some new connection with the animal world at the end. His warm baritone is the dominant voice on stage, and it’s he whose closing monologue brings a powerful sense of uplift, even though our free-spirited heroine is gone.

  • In rep at Glyndebourne, Lewes, until 31 July. Box office: 01273 815000.


Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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