Charles Mackerras returns to Covent Garden to conduct The Cunning Little Vixen for the first time with the Royal Opera. His wealth of experience of conducting Janáček is evident in every bar, as the orchestra of the Royal Opera rise to the occasion and deliver wonderfully idiomatic playing. The passing of time has not, however, been kind to Bill Bryden’s staging which now looks dated and excessively twee.
As we know, the mind can often play tricks. I last saw Bill Bryden’s production of The Cunning Little Vixen when it was new twenty years ago (with Lillian Watson as Vixen Sharp-Ears and Simon Rattle in the pit) and I remember it being alive to Janáček’s pantheist credentials, delivering an alternative, yet equally valid, interpretation to the much-travelled Pountney/Bjornson staging. However much has happened in the world of opera in the ensuing two decades and Bryden’s staging, in William Dudley’s Disney-esque designs, now looks tired and dated and on the first night there was little in the way of stage magic.
Nature is laid bare in this opera and Janáček achieves this without the slightest whiff of sentimentality. The tale of Vixen Sharp-Ears follows the cycle of her life from birth to death and the composer charts her course in the opera where the real protagonist is nature and the evolving seasons. The brutality of nature is there in the music as Janáček’s score bristles with danger and unfettered power moments of lyricism are few and far between.
There’s a dichotomy between the staging and the score in that the stage pictures are anodyne and the whole show looks too cute for its own good. There is little sense of danger and much of what Janacek was trying to express, that nothing can stand in the way of nature and we are all mortal, is lost.
As Vixen Sharp-Ears Emma Matthews certainly has the stage persona for the role but her voice is a shade on the small size for a theatre of Covent Garden’s size she projected well sounding most comfortable above the stave but when she sang in the middle of her register she struggled to be heard. She’s made her mark for Opera Australia in the bel canto roles, so it would be good to hear her in that repertoire here.
A sudden appendectomy forced Emma Bell to withdraw the day before opening night but Jette Parker young artist Elisabeth Meister saved the day and made an auspicious debut as the Fox. She has a bright, laser-like soprano and unlike most mezzos who insist on singing this role, encountered no problems with the high-lying tessitura of the part. She is definitely a name to watch.
The most rounded performance of the evening came from Christopher Maltman as the Forester whose diction was as exemplary as the glorious sounds he produced. Mackerras led a spirited performance from the pit that allowed the orchestra its head at the expense of the singers, but the orchestra played well nevertheless.