The Cunning Little Vixen review – Rattle and Sellars banish cuteness but drama and beauty shine

Barbican, London
A strong cast and outstanding playing by the LSO power Janáček’s bucolic foray in a concert staging with added video

Peter Sellars’ concert staging of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, a collaboration with Simon Rattle and first seen in Berlin in 2017, reaches the Barbican for two performances at the close of the London Symphony Orchestra’s season. Musically, it’s often stunning. However, Sellars’ treatment, though striking, may not be to everyone’s taste.

The action is largely confined to a platform in front of the orchestra, though Haraschta the poacher (Hanno Müller-Brachmann) prowls around in the stalls, his rifle slung across his shoulders. Cast and chorus are uniformly dressed in black, and there is no visible differentiation between animals and humans. However, video projections above the orchestra provide images of teeming nature and the drab world of mankind. Quivering tadpoles become frogs during the introduction, and insects copulate during the love scene between Lucy Crowe’s Vixen and Sophia Burgos’s Fox. Gerald Finley’s Forester seemingly lives not in a lodge but in an urban apartment block, while folk dancers prance about at Haraschta’s wedding. The end result, though admirably free from cuteness or sentimentality, can on occasion be charmless, and short on the playfulness that offsets the beauty and sadness of the score.

Finley, in a deeply moving performance, is in many ways the protagonist here, a melancholy, alienated figure who eventually finds contentment in acceptance of the eternal renewal of nature. Crowe, in superb voice, makes a wonderful Vixen, mischievous, charismatic, naive yet tender in her duet with Burgos. In a consistently good cast, Peter Hoare’s sad Schoolmaster, Jan Martiník’s dour Parson and Müller-Brachmann, gritty sounding and fierce, stand out.

The choral contributions – from the London Symphony Chorus and the children of the LSO Discovery Voices – are extremely fine. The work itself, meanwhile, has long been among Rattle’s personal favourites. “It’s the piece that made me want to become an opera conductor,” he writes in the programme, and he conducts it with great affection, keenly alert both to its drama and the astonishing beauty of its evocation of the natural world. The playing is outstanding.

• Repeated at the Barbican, London, on 29 June.

Contributor

Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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