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The Cunning Little Vixen (WNO - Birmingham)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
I'll cut to the chase here: WNO's magical Cunning Little Vixen has to be one of the best operatic productions I've seen in years. Nothing's schmaltzy or overdone, but it oozes easy charm, humour and sheer beauty: Janacek gives us an unsentimentalised but immensely affectionate view of a nature that's very much Red in Tooth and Claw, and David Pountney's production realises this to perfection. The choreography and costuming of the opening ballet-sequence has shades of The Rite of Spring and Lothar Koenigs plays up the Stravinskian elements of the score throughout, whilst never allowing things to get too manicured - the WNO band have serious form in Janacek, as last season's superbly-played Katya Kabanova demonstrated, and the little touches of rusticity in the playing made this evening just as special.

Sophie Bevan's Vixen was utterly delectable: vocally, it fits her vernal, gleaming soprano like a glove and whilst everything sounded deliciously fresh and unforced she had no problem projecting in the lower reaches or in the most thickly-scored passages (I'd only her in lighter roles before, but when she was singing near the footlights I realised what a punch she can pack now!). One of the virtues of this production is its avoidance of over-sentimentality and Bevan's Vixen encapsulates it: she's voluptuous without being vulgar, endearing without being twee, and throughout the evening the balance between the animal and human elements of the character is exactly right. She brings an uninhibited, exuberant physicality to the role which never seems studied or awkward, and David Pountney's direction wisely avoids cliched animal-gestures in favour of feral, sensual body-language that always seems spontaneous. Jonathan Summer's bluff, powerfully-sung Forester was older and more grizzled than other recent interpretations of the role, but no less sympathetic for that, particularly in the glorious closing scene (which Janacek requested for his own funeral). Like everyone else in the cast his diction was impeccable: Pountney's translation is evidently as singer-friendly as it is witty and earthy.

The relentlessly high-lying role of the Fox didn't lie ideally for Sarah Castle's substantial mezzo (more of a falcon role than a true mezzo part, it sits so high that it's sometimes assigned to young dramatic sopranos): she sang with peerless intonation throughout and there was no ugliness of tone even at the very top, but the music just didn't seem to sit where her voice blooms. A veteran of more conventional trouser-roles, she had the laddish swagger and slight vulnerability off pat, and an easy chemistry with Bevan that made the love-scenes touching without being mawkish. The smaller roles were all taken with bags of character (I loved Julian Boyce's lugubrious old lech of a Dog, and the line-up of plump indolent Hens!), but after Bevan the stand-out performance of the night came from Peter Van Hulle as the Schoolmaster, replacing an indisposed Alan Oke: even in this distinctly unheroic role his singing was absolutely thrilling, with a individual timbre and metallic ring that reminded me of the late Philip Langridge and would surely works wonders in Britten and other more dramatic Janacek roles. And the army of children as woodland-animals and fox-cubs are absolute scene-stealers: completely involved and supremely confident at all times, their only flaw was to draw such protracted cooing from the audience each time they appeared!

What a joyous, life-affirming evening in the theatre this is: the show isn't a new one (like the WNO Butterfly, it premiered nearly three decades ago), but the revival-director (Elaine Tyler-Hall) has refreshed it with tender loving care, and even if you've seen it in an earlier incarnation it's well worth catching again just for Bevan's superb Vixen.

Katherine Cooper


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