I think that I have discovered a new hero, Leoš Janáček, the man responsible for the work currently being performed by Opera North at Leeds Grand Theatre. He has made my list of good guys on two counts; firstly he has broken the mould when it comes to the practice of anthropomorphism, and secondly, he is stark raving bonkers.
I have always held writers like Beatrix Potter to be enemies of society by giving animals human attributes, in the vast majority of cases making them lovely and huggable, which, more often than not, would be totally wrong if compared to the way in which they acted in their natural habitat. The only person I feel got it anything like correct was George Orwell when he personified the political players of the early part of the twentieth century into farm animals in Animal Farm. The Cunning Little Vixen is a cross between this and The Sopranos, both of which were written after the opera so well done to Janáček for setting the trend.
I mention the Sopranos because, should a fox be transformed into its human equivalent it would surely be a Mafia Capo, rather than the Basil Brush figure we keep getting fed, the only Boom Boom it would emit would be either from having planted a couple of bombs or the machine gunning of a rival, or innocent bystander. Should a fox stumble across a bird’s nest or hen coup and was feeling peckish, it will kill one of those present to take away for a meal, and then slaughter the remainder. The only difference is that the Mafiosi do this to eliminate witnesses whereas vulpines do it for fun. Any tv addicts like myself will recall that, even though we knew Tony Soprano was responsible, either directly or indirectly, for innumerable murders, we still empathised with him to some extent as we saw his domestic and mental struggles which made him vulnerable. In this opera we see the vixen dispose of half a dozen hens without any qualms, con a family of badgers out of their sett but then sympathise with her when she falls in love.
Weirdly, the novella by David Garnett on which the opera is based, does things the other way round, morphing a woman into a vixen, something you need to know to make sense of the plot, as two men are in love with Tebrick, the human form of the animal.
As I have mentioned, the plot is bonkers, even for an opera, varying between the human forms with a Forester, a School Teacher, a Preacher and a Poacher, who are all smitten by Tebrick, and myriad animals and insects who inhabit the countryside. It is basically a fable so it is the message rather than the minutiae which matters.
The whole evening was quite simply fun. The first scene was of some of the animals frolicking in the countryside with a Dragonfly on the end of a silver wand held by a dancer clad in a silver catsuit looking for all the world like Freddy Mercury in his pomp. There was a lot of comedy, most of which was surprisingly witty, a very pleasant shock as, judging by the costumes, I was expecting farce. As well as the verbal jokes, there were a lot of physical ones, such as when the mosquito bit the sleeping Forester, sucking his blood and then staggering away because of the alcohol therein. There were also two elderly figures on rocking chairs suspended high above the stage shrouded in boughs who kept disappearing into the flies.
The set was amazing, resembling the rolling hills of the countryside, both green in the summer and then covered in a white sheet to signify the winter snow, leading to the actors sliding down the slopes and slipping over. The way in which the sheet disappeared to represent the spring thaw was a masterstroke. At various points the front of the ‘countryside’ opened to reveal the local pub where the humans would meet.
The format of the piece was also a bit mad, it was a combination of opera and ballet but with no formal arias, in fact, there was not really a song in the whole thing, just dialogue sung to an accompaniment. Although the work was performed in English, there were still surtitles displayed on screens by the stage. This was a good thing as it meant that I could confirm that what I thought I had just heard was, in fact, correct. I have never come across the word ‘slapper’ in an opera before.
There are so many cast members it would be impossible to mention them all so I will just single out a few. Elin Pritchard who played the lead, was brilliant. Her singing was wonderful but, because of the physical nature of this particular piece, that was not the be all and end all, as she had to convey many facets; the innocent little vixen, the mass murderer, the con artist, the independent – not taking any nonsense form anyone face, and the love interest as both the vixen and her human counterpart. She did the whole lot superbly.
James Rutherford, as the Forester who adopts the vixen as a pup, how stupid can you be as someone who keeps hens, and Callum Thorpe as Poacher also gave stunning performances.
The Orchestra of Opera North were on top form, as always, under the baton of Andrew Gourlay.
The opera was directed by Sir David Pountney who gave the piece a great balance between frivolity and the deeper message of hope after disappointment.
This is where I normally say whether this would be a good way to use your Try It ON concession in order to sample an opera for the first time, but this is so much unlike any opera I have seen that I am in a dilemma. I am sure that non-operagoers would love this so would highly recommend it, the problem being that you would not have sampled the more formal variety. I must, therefore, leave the choice to you. Second thoughts, stuff it, get your cut price ticket and enjoy a night of fun.
To read more about Try it ON please go to https://www.operanorth.co.uk/your-visit/new-to-opera/tryiton/
For more information about The Cunning Little Vixen, including a synopsis, and to book tickets it is https://www.operanorth.co.uk/whats-on/the-cunning-little-vixen/ After its run at Leeds Grand Theatre, which is on selected dates until 4th March, the production visits Salford Quays, Nottingham, Newcastle and Hull.
All Photographs by Tristram Kenton
Feature image from Opera North