Review: Cunning Little Vixen @ Arcola Theatre (Grimeborn Opera Festival)

The Cunning Little Vixen is a strange little opera. Peter and the Wolf with a love story, or perhaps The Wind In The Willows with a dark side? This innovative production at the Arcola Theatre’s annual Grimeborn Opera Festival delves into Leoš Janáček’s 1920s work with energy and imagination.

www.arcolatheatre-1photo credit: Robert Workman

The story seems, at first, a strange subject for an opera. It tells, at times cheekily, at times movingly, but always simply and strangely plausibly, of the life of a young vixen. She is captured by a forester and lives in captivity before escaping and falling in love with a handsome boy fox, eventually coming to a tragic end. A host of anthropomorphic forest animals and some humans accompany her on this journey. The whole thing is set to experimental yet folk-like music that bears resemblance to the works of Debussy.

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The Arcola’s Studio 1 is not easy to work with. The ceiling is low and space is limited. Performer entrances and exits take a long time, and the tiny space stage right for the musicians barely accommodates this production’s piano quintet, along with skilled young conductor Oliver Till. However, Vixen deals well with the Arcola’s restrictions and manages, through the use of an inventive set and and an arsenal of props, to believably conjure a woodland clearing, a pub and a barnyard in the space.

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The Cunning Little Vixen is all about orchestral music. For an opera, there isn’t actually that much singing going on, and the many characters (over twenty) don’t get  a lot of time to develop. However, with such able and lovely voices as Alison Rose’s (Vixen) in the cast, that hardly matters. Most of them take on a few roles each and differentiate the various parts with great skill, helped by the bright visual aides that are designer Alexander McPherson and Denisa Dumitrescu’s costumes. The music is less glaring and more murky, in a good way. In this scaled-down new arrangement for piano quintet, Janáček’s haunting, textured melodies swirl and glimmer like soft light dappling a forest floor. The many periods of solely instrumental music, for which the composer gives little stage direction, have been well-dealt with – Nina von der Werth’s wonderful choreography sees dragonflies, frogs and other creatures gliding and leaping about in simple, entrancing sequences.

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This opera, which contains everything from tragedy and dream sequences to sex and comedy, gives an audience much to talk about afterwards. My only criticism would be that even in English translation, the narrative was not completely clear and could have done with surtitles. Nevertheless, it sent my group discussing and praising well into the night, and was, for a Janáček novice like me, a perfect and approachable way to discover this gem of early 20th century opera for the first time.

The Cunning Little Vixen is playing the Arcola Theatre in Dalston until 4 August 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.

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