Janáček’s most lighthearted opera – based on the tale of Vixen Sharp Ears, published in instalments in the daily newspaper in his home town of Brno in the early 1920s – is a welcome return at ENO. David Pountney’s production has lost none of its freshness, presenting the countryside through the seasons in charming miniature.
It’s populated with birds, insects and wild animals (with wonderfully clever design and costumes by Maria Björnson) and in particular, a stunning dragonfly embodied by the dancer Michael Rolnick. This gorgeous shimmering creature flits and swoops, managing to maintain the illusion of effortless grace while balancing on the trickiest, hilliest footing imaginable.
Within this idyllic setting the charming vixen lives out her life story – her capture by the Forester (brilliantly sung by Peter Coleman-Wright, with wonderful clarity), interaction with a group of very silly (and very funny) hens which ends just as one might expect, courtship by the fox, family life with a troupe of delightful cubs, and finally her death at the hands of the poacher. However the cycle of nature goes on, and the opera is ultimately a celebration of that fact.
Susan Gritton plays the vixen with great energy, though it is very difficult to hear her words – memories of Lesley Garrett as the supreme Sharp Ears are not easy to overcome. Sarah Connelly makes a fine dandified fox and other ‘human’ parts – the parson, the schoolmaster and the poacher in particular – are well rounded.
But the lasting memory is of the children playing the various creatures. The caterpillar, the hedgehog, the exquisite young hare that unfortunately meets her end through the vixen… was it my imagination or was the whole audience hoping the story would turn out differently? But this is nature, red in tooth and claw. And of course, that sublime dragonfly. Definitely an evening to lift the spirits.