This enchanting opera, composed by Janácek in 1921 in his seventieth year, is based on a comic strip which appeared in a Czechoslovakian newspaper of the time. The composer admired the story of the half tame, half wild vixen Sharpears, based in a rural community, and Janácek was particularly enthusiastic about the way it jumped naturally from the human to the animal world.
The forest is brought to life by his translucent scoring and the orchestral interludes are particularly magical. As a spectacle, the opera is strange mixture of Wind in the Willows and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, allowing full rein to the imagination of the director and designer.
This production, first premiered at Covent Garden in 1993, is dominated by a large, slowly rotating wheel and a smaller clock that moves across the stage suggesting a change in time and season. Around these permanent fixtures aerial figures such as the blue dragonfly and mosquito drift by on fantastic flying machines, while on stage a cross-section of forest creatures and humans act out the story in song and dance.
The human element is represented by the gamekeeper, schoolteacher, priest, innkeeper and poacher. The relationship between these humans and the animals around them is explored over the four seasons, starting with the capture of Sharpears by the gamekeeper as a pet for his children, her escape and eventual death at the hands of the poacher. She does however leave behind her a family of cubs to continue the recurring cycle of nature.
Janácek writes his characteristically short motifs and the opera is both chatty and lyrical, interspersed with the wonderful orchestral interludes.
The cast is uniformly good and we were spoiled by having excellent diction as well as English surtitles. Gerald Finley gave an outstanding performance as the gamekeeper – a part in which Thomas Allen has previously excelled. The role of the vixen Sharpears needs a lithe and appealing actress who can demonstrate through voice and movement both the charm and the viciousness of this wild creature. Dawn Upshaw, making her belated Covent Garden debut, filled the bill admirably, although at times she seemed to forget that she was an operatic heroine rather than the star of a Broadway musical.
In a large cast the rooster and his hens were outstanding while the vixen’s husband – the fox – was dashingly played by Joyce DiDonato. The humans were all sung and acted convincingly with Jeremy White doubling as the badger and the priest.
Special mention must be made of the many children who charmed us as fox cubs, flies, caterpillars and other crawly creatures. It was also nice to see a goodly number of children on the other side of the footlights enjoying the performance as part of the capacity audience.
John Eliot Gardner conducted, coaxing from the orchestra a wonderful variety of woodland sounds. He appeared to be totally in tune with the requirements of the composer and it was good to see him tackling music which is more contemporary than his usual repertoire. The whole production was a credit to the Royal Opera House and it confirms the excellence which has been evident during recent seasons.