A Blast of Scarlet

The Cunning Little Vixen, music and libretto by Leoš Janáček, English translation by Norman Tucker, conducted by Michael Rosewell, directed by Daniel Slater, presented by The Royal College of Music, International Opera School, The Britten Theatre, 29th November, 7.00pm

How much I love the Janáček operas, Kátya Kabanová and this one, The Cunning Little Vixen, can barely be expressed. I love the joyous energy of the music, the fact it seems to be doing many things at the same time, that it still, after the passage of a century or so, seems utterly modern and yet calls so much on a kind of timeless Central European echo of folk and myth that I, as an Australian, always found so exotic and alluring, the marriage of the dark and the light which gives all their storytelling a mystery and magic that is unique.

I knew these operas as box sets of vinyl for many years. The actual plots were always a bit cloudy. I could never really get too excited about studying the libretto. So when I got to see a production of The Cunning Little Vixen at the Royal Opera House, you can perhaps imagine my anticipation. At last, this transcendent piece of music would become clear. I would finally have all the pieces to complete the full picture.

The disappointment was overwhelming. It was all dancers on trapezes, flying about, on a set that was a rubbish tip. What did a rubbish tip have to do with this opera, apart from allowing various birds and insects a stage to show off their costumes? The flying apparatus took up so much space in the wings (I was working there at the time) that it was difficult to get a clear view but I saw enough to know that the production was a travesty.

I am happy to report that this production, somewhat less ambitious on the trapeze front, finally delivers the joyous, transcendent experience I’ve longed for.

And this from an opera whose origins are a comic strip, originally published in a newspaper. 

And yet, it was comics that invented the super-hero, the kind of fun, shape-shifting, up-lifting vessels of limitless power, who not only vanquish the bad guys but do it by bringing colour and vivacity to our drab and jejune lives.

Thus, the Cunning Little Vixen: a super-fox, Superwoman before she was thought of, Super-vixen, a blast of scarlet and movement for a village from which all happiness and zest has been leached.

The concept allows Janáček full reign for his two or more things at the same time schtick - the animals are both people and animals. They are characters of the imagination, but living and breathing in their own right. They won’t be controlled or managed or repressed. They are transgressive, transformative, exciting, dangerous, alive.

They are excitement, but also rebellion, revolution, danger and death.

And they are animals, less than people, but still people. The superhero comes from the other side, the ranks of the lesser, the common, the overlooked.

I’ve always felt this to be a dangerous and revolutionary opera, whose ideas are much more radical, subversive and anarchic than the innocence that an opera about animals usually entails. This certainly isn’t Peter and the Wolf, for instance.

And herein lies the real contradiction, the real paradox - this is an opera, an art form most closely associated with a different kind of heroic trope, romantic, Wagnerian maybe, an opera conversely about the triumph of those at the bottom of the heap, rather than a vindication of the natural order of things, the rich at the top, the poor making up the numbers, supernumeraries merely. An opera about a comic book heroine, one sprung from popular culture, which has found its way into an utterly different form.

The Forester brings the Vixen home, in much the same way that Heathcliff is introduced to the Earnshaw household in Wuthering Heights, an intervention that brings adventure but ultimately destruction. The Vixen does as her nature dictates, she upsets the dog, bites the children, ferments rebellion in the farmyard, kills all the chickens and escapes into the wild; the house that the Forester built now a smoking ruin of regret and recrimination.

But she doesn’t stop there. She disturbs the lives of both the local teacher and priest, goes on to marry, have many children (or cubs) and, as her alter ego, Terynka, the town beauty, finally make a life with, fittingly, the poacher, the person toward whom everyone can feel superior. A final exultation of the genuine over the socially moribund.

The Cunning Little Vixen seems so radical on so many levels as to be almost super-human, and it’s in no small part down to Julieth Lozano’s performance. There is definitely something of the superhero about her Vixen, encompassing her many identities, fox, human, superhero with the simplest of gesture but credible vivacity, charm and charisma. Her courtship with Nardus Williams’ Fox, a dangerous, charming presence, sophisticated in all the most attractive and alluring ways, is simply wonderful, an expression of what this opera can be, simple, heartfelt, but complex and very intelligent.

Paul Corcoran