Janáček’s animal allegory gives paws for thought.
How suitable is this opera for children? Not very, at least not in this production and translation, which is often pretty explicit. In any staging, a piece about the desolate sadness of advancing age, rejection, heavy drinking and ‘Nature Red in Tooth and Claw’ was never going to be the perfect night out for one’s tinies. David Pountney’s production was first seen in 1980 and was revived by the director for this run. Has it stood the test of time? Yes and no.
Pountney considers the work to be “The definitive Gesamtkunstwerk, a masterly amalgam of operatic dialogue, songs, chorus, wordless singing, ballet, mime, orchestral prelude… [it] moves between the animal and the human, and combines the mythic, the tragic and the comic, achieving, in one and a half hours, everything Wagner set out in Opera and Drama”. Those are huge claims, and the production does much to justify them. It was ground-breaking in the 1980s, but since then equally superb stagings at Glyndebourne and Garsington have also had much to say.
This was the last night of the Leeds run before the tour commences on 16 March, and there has obviously been some sort of bug going around, so it was understandable that one or two of the singers were not quite on peak form. James Rutherford’s Forester seemed to have escaped the lurgy until the end, when he tired a little but his singing and characterisation were generally as sincere and mellifluous as we have come to expect from him. Elin Pritchard announced her promise in the Grange Festival’s 2019 Falstaff where she was a stunning Alice, and her Vixen did not disappoint. Her shining top notes and warm phrasing are ideal in this role.
“Has it stood the test of time? Yes and no”
Paul Nilon and Henry Waddington contributed exquisite little cameos in the roles of Schoolmaster and Parson respectively, the latter touching in his loneliness and the former creating a world of isolation and sorrow. Heather Lowe, a superb Cinderella at The Grange, was not on her best form here, with a few wayward notes on the higher lines, but her acting was as committed as ever. Callum Thorpe added another role to his ever-growing roster of very well sung and convincingly acted parts as the Poacher.
The hens, led by Miranda Bevan, were of course a big hit with the audience, and the various insects and small furry animals were enchanting without being twee, which is one of the most vital aspects of any production of this opera. Maria Björnson’s sets and Nick Chelton’s lighting fill the stage with colour and atmosphere, and Stuart Hopps’ choreography never lacks creative imagination.
The stars of the show were in the pit, conducted with real flair by Andrew Gourlay, producing the most intensely lyrical sweeps of sound, relishing the Wagnerian surge of the phrases and replicating both the delicacy and occasional brutality on the stage.
• The production now goes on tour to The Lowry, Salford Quays, the Theatre Royal in Nottingham, the Theatre Royal in Newcastle and Hull New Theatre.
• Details can be found here.