Following Lulu in WNO’s ‘Free Spirit’ season of unconventional female roles, Vixen doesn’t end with a murder, as Lulu does, but the heroine is shot dead by the Poacher, a thwarted, angry man who doesn’t want to be outwitted and mocked by the prey that has just bitten him and bloodied his nose.
In a curious juxtaposition, there is no sound of a gunshot – just silence – the Poacher stands motionless, still aiming his shotgun as when he fired, frozen in time and space, in silhouette yet lit just enough to appear as in a Bewick woodcut print.
This is the most dramatic moment in the opera, and as the Vixen is an adorable, amoral creature, it should be shocking and heartless if it weren’t so bewitching. Yet it does not upset, and it yields directly to a gentle orchestral postlude, in fact an elaboration of the earlier love duet between Vixen and her Fox. The scene moves rapidly on to the village inn, where two of the leading human characters are suffering specifically human emotions, of regret for lost love, lost youth and lost opportunities
Thanks to the radiance of Janáček’s music, sensitively directed by Lothar Koenigs, the rhythms that sustain life, human and animal, push us forward. Thus we are made to care more about what will happen next than about what has happened. It is this feature of his art, so characteristic of almost all of it, that makes Janáček seem alternately the warmest-hearted of composers and the most jubilantly detached.
Given the pantheism of Vixen, it is the orchestra which carries the largest communicative power, linking the swiftly changing scenes – for this is what the opera is, rather than a continuous development of music and drama.
Jonathan Summers gave an eloquent portrayal of the role of the Forester, although on occasion his vocal tone lacked richness. He was well supported by the other roles, both human and animal: Sophie Bevan as Vixen was in fine voice, immediately personable, although slightly too aware of the cuteness of the role, moving lithely over Maria Bjorntsen’s undulating set, atmospherically lit by Nick Chelton.
Vixen’s partner, soprano Sarah Castle, did a fine job, though Janáček’s decision to make him a soprano doesn’t quite ring true nor, perhaps the director’s decision to sing the opera in English, as Janáček was as meticulous in his appreciation of Moravian speech rhythms as he was to capture its traditional music. Alan Oke was outstanding as the dry Schoolmaster, as was Richard Angas, a morose parson full of regrets, with David Stout firm-voiced as Harasta, the Poacher. Elaine Tyler-Hall revived the choreography with a delightful Naomi Tadevossian as ‘Spirit of Vixen’ and Conor Dowling as Dragonfly.
Great voices are not required for this music, but here was no weak link, danced or sung phrase that didn’t seem inspired in David Pountney’s spellbinding celebration of nature and the cycle of life.