An ill-conceived production at the Coliseum disappoints.
The English National Opera, or rather its predecessor, Sadler’s Wells Opera, has served Janáček’s operas well. It was the first company in the UK to perform one of his operas – Kat’a Kabanova in 1954 – and has gone on to stage many memorable productions over the last fifty-odd years. The company’s previous staging of the Czech composer’s tale of Vixen Sharp Ears, was borrowed from the Welsh National Opera, serving it well in the 90s and finally bowing out in 2001.
We’ve had a long wait for it to return to the repertoire, so this new production was eagerly anticipated – especially given it had been trusted to up-and-coming director Jamie Manton and featured one of the country’s leading singing actresses, Sally Matthews, singing the title role for the first time. Whilst there were elements of it that worked, a lot of it didn’t, and some ideas were so wide of the mark that one was left wondering there’d been anyone on hand to advise and guide the relatively young and inexperienced production team through the pitfalls of staging such a complex piece on a stage as big as the Coliseum’s.
The first, fatal flaw was to do away with any permanent scenery, so when the curtain rose the entire backstage area was on view. Instead, designer Tom Scutt gave us portable scenery, stacked with logs. Made from what looked like leftover MDF from Hunding’s hut in The Valkyrie, yet again we had a staging that involved extras shifting sections of scenery around, distractingly – and what’s more, voices got lost in the vast expanses of the stage.
The action moves from various locales – forest, house, pub – but for the latter, wheeling on more logs piled atop gurneys, and a beer keg with tubes from which the characters drank was odd to say the least. To misquote Mrs Sedley (Peter Grimes) ‘I’ve never been in a pub like that in my life’. These were all miscalculations, but maybe the biggest misfire was the Disneyfication of it all. Janáček was a pantheist and portrays the animal kingdom without a jot of sentimentality. The Vixen’s cunning slaughtering of the rooster and the hens here went for nought as most of the hens were spared a premature death, appearing throughout the rest of the opera as the Vixen’s bizarre, feathered entourage. And when the Fox woos the Vixen, he does so by offering her a rabbit. Here, when they’re not looking, this cutesy bob-tailed individual escapes, totally going against the brutality that lies at the heart of the work.
“Whilst there were elements of it that worked, a lot of it didn’t…”
Similarly, there’s no pathos or world-weariness inherent in the characterisations of the priest or schoolteacher. This new staging only scratches the surface of Janáček’s life-enhancing hymn to nature, but fortunately there were musical compensations. Matthews was a sly, cynical Vixen and sang thrillingly throughout the evening. She was well matched by Pumeza Matshikiza’s warm-toned, if largely wordless, Fox. Unfortunately, too many of the cast had trouble getting their words across, even Lester Lynch’s otherwise lyrical Forester had difficulties in this respect, so we were thankful for the surtitles.
Only three singers succeeded in making every word crystal clear – ENO veterans Clive Bayley (Badger/Priest), Alan Oke (Schoolteacher) and promising newcomer Ossian Huskinson (Harašta), and they all sang faultlessly. There were notable cameos from Claire Barnett-Jones (Dog) and Madeleine Shaw (Forester’s Wife) while Gweneth Ann Rand excelled as a Hen and the Innkeeper’s Wife – luxury casting indeed.
Music Director Martyn Brabbins was far more at home with Janáček’s musical idiom than he had been with Wagner’s earlier in the season, and he secured fine, articulate playing from his attentive orchestra.