Thank goodness for Sir Charles Mackerras. Opportunities to hear the 84 year old conduct are treasurable, doubly so when it’s his beloved Janacek. He drew a translucent, at times glowing, performance of one of the composer’s most glorious scores from the Royal Opera House Orchestra on the first night of The Cunning Little Vixen.
It’s as well that there was some security in the pit, as this was otherwise a rather routine revival. New in 1990, Bill Bryden’s production is receiving only its fourth outing but it still seems a little flea-bitten and tired. Opera production has moved on a lot in the last 20 years and expectations of Janacek, now firmly established as a key 20th Century composer, are so much higher.
William Dudley’s designs are confusing, poised as they are between civilisation and nature, a huge rusty wheel with shattered spokes invading the rustic setting. Into this sterile environment crank strange mechanistic blobs and an unaccountable automatic car wash.
There’s always a danger of the twee factor in Janacek’s tale of woodland folk and Bryden falls easily into Wind in the Willows whimsy, with a host of rabbits, insects and fox cubs straight out of a school play.
Singing honours go to Christopher Maltman’s strong and sympathetic Forester with, in a subsidiary role, a sterling Poacher from Matthew Rose. Elsewhere, voices are on the small size, with a house debut from Australian soprano Emma Matthews that does nothing wrong but fails to live up to expectations.
Emma Bell was hauled into hospital for an emergency appendectomy the day before opening, so Jette Parker Young Artist Elisabeth Meister was bumped up the evolutionary scale, from Rooster/Jay to Fox, and made a fair fist of it.
One problem with the production is the use of English text, instead of the original Czech. This decision may be to do with the appeal to a younger audience, a valid question of accessibility, but it does give this flighty work a prosaic edge.
If you only see one Janacek this month, you could go to the Coliseum for a strong dose of repression, claustrophobia and suicide with Katya Kabanova or, if the composer in gentler mood, and children in bunny costumes, is more your thing, this is the one for you.