Opera Review: Cunning Little Vixen

Leoš Janáček wrote Cunning Little Vixen in1924; it is a work of incredible beauty in the true minimalist form that was his unique signature.

Presented by State Opera South Australia
Reviewed 18th May 2019

Leoš Janáček wrote Cunning Little Vixen in1924; it is a work of incredible beauty in the true minimalist form that was his unique signature. The libretto was adapted by the composer from the 1920’s serialized novella Liška Bystrouška, by Rudolf Těsnohlídek and first appeared in comic book form in the newspaper Lidové noviny, with illustrations by Stanislav Lolek. Janáček’s lifelong interest in Moravian folk music combined with his fertile imagination and the characters from the comic strip provided an outlet for the tragic circumstances that surrounded Janáček’s personal life. As is often the case with great composers their personal life provides the inspiration for great work; Janáček is no exception. The disintegration of his marriage, the death of his daughter and his hopeless infatuation with Kamila Stösslová provided much of the inspiration for much of his later works.

Stuart Maunder’s direction of the Victoria Opera’s highly acclaimed production of this comic opera, has been mounted with Victoria Opera and Western Australian Opera’s permission and is a real asset to the opera company’s repertoire. Maunder’s handling of the production is lively and entertaining. Norman Tucker’s translation is interesting, it adds a charm and liveliness to the piece, but feels a little dated. It took a little time to adjust to it but it, nevertheless, assisted the evident immense enjoyment of the first night audience at The Ridley Centre, I don’t think there were many Czech speakers in the house. It has some very amusing moments but some of the livelier comedy seems to have been sidelined by the first night audience in the pursuit of art. A shame really as the humour is allied to the energy of this clever reflection on the circle of life and would have perhaps given permission to the audience, through the wonderful array of Australian talent gracing the stage, to perhaps enjoy themselves a little more.

Desiree Frahn’s little Vixen was a wonderful mix of vibrant pixie like energy underpinned with a depth and tone that totally suited her glorious voice. The story she told with such honesty and integrity held the core of the opera in place from start to finish. A tour de force of a performance that revealed Miss Frahn’s acting and singing ability at the highest level. It’s a busy night in the office for this little vixen and she doesn’t let up for a minute whether she’s singing or acting. Hard to top you’d think? Well, James Clayton’s Forester provided the perfect foil for Frahn’s Vixen. His clear tone, near perfect articulation and gift for storytelling through song added a lustre to the relationship which was beautiful to listen to and carried us effortlessly through the story.

Antoinette Halloran’s Fox was fun, endearing and magically larger than life, a performance filled with joy and some very impressive singing. Paul O’Neill’s schoolmaster had just the right amount of Eeyore as he complained effortlessly about his lot and his unrequited love for the gypsy girl Terynka. Pelham Andrew’s badger was beautiful to look at, but that diction must be difficult under such a large amount of clothing, hat and a full beard. I was at odds to understand some of the words. His parson however was clear, articulate and full of regret for the love he left behind.

Douglas McNicol’s Haraśta was a highlight, a great depth to a solid character reflected beautifully in his attention to the detail of the work and that golden tone. Little wonder that he gets the girl. Joanna McWaters’ Forester’s Wife was perfectly pitched, but her owl was a highlight, a really cleverly observed piece of characterisation, and a vision in red and white. Catriona Barr, as ever versatile, gave us the choice of three characters to play with. Her dog, a lesson in characterisation was dissatisfied, jealous and grumpy, her Woodpecker sharp and inquisitive, and her Mrs Pásek, a perfectly put-upon inn-keeper’s wife and Andrew Turner as Pásek was in fine voice and gave us a solid and dependable Inn keeper.

Samantha Rubenhold’s Cockerel, full of bluff and bravado, was particularly endearing as were her coterie of chickens. It is beyond me they barely raised a chuckle! The costumes alone suggesting a chorus line of can-can chooks and they made me laugh, a little embarrassingly, out loud – I barely heard a chuckle from the full house!

The hens, forest creatures and townspeople populated the stage in a fine array of quirky costumes, designed with great flair by the wonderfully talented Roger Kirk, from insects to chickens to wedding guests. They were inventive, creative and embraced the energy of the music blending effortlessly with the sumptuous soundscape created by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (ASO). A vibrant back-up for the story. Last but not least, the children’s chorus, dressed as every forest insect you can imagine, plus playing a group of young fox cubs, were energetic and inventive. Always a wild card to wrangle, this bunch of talented young people were in fine voice. They played and explored a variety of characters with great energy and focus. My only small complaint is that these talented and hard-working people, young and older, would have benefitted from a choreographer. It may have assisted some of the less coordinated members of the ensemble with their journey.

The stage was aglow with design elements which all came together to create the ever-changing environment the opera finds itself in. In true Janáček minimalist style it changed effortlessly from location to location and season to season. The simple yet effective set design of Richard Roberts was enhanced and amplified by Trudie Dalgleish’s superb lighting design and decorated with the stylish and exuberant costumes of Roger Kirk. A feast for all the senses. The constantly changing sumptuous lighting effects assisted not only to the performances of the singers but seemed to effortlessly underpin the emotional intensity of some of the ASO’s beautiful work. Johannes Fritzsch’s sensitive and honest manipulation of the score was a highlight of the evening. Though perhaps the members of the brass and percussion sections of the orchestra might like to bear in mind they are part of the staging if they are that visible, and remain in their seats during the show; their movement was a distraction from the action on stage which, in the configuration of the venue, they were very much a part of. The Ridley Centre has been used recently for a number of stage and musical performances and it must be said lends itself to epic staging really well. and is surprisingly acoustically very friendly.

Since taking the helm of State Opera South Australia, Stuart Maunder has pushed the boat out on a wonderful magical adventure. It is heartening to see more collaboration with other opera companies in Australia to bring a greater range of opera to South Australia. This is a courageous move to introduce some innovative and exciting opera into the repertoire.  Cunning Little Vixen is an opera for the whole family with a message for today. It’s a circle of life, but not as we know it, Elton!

Reviewed by Adrian Barnes

Rating: 5/5

Venue:  Ridley Centre, Adelaide Showground

Season: 19 May, 7:30 pm, 23 May, 7:30pm, 25 May, 7:30pm

Duration:  Approximately 90minutes (not including interval).

Tickets: Adults $120 A Res $100, B Res $80, C Res $50, U30’s $30
Family Pass $210 (2x Adult 2x Children A Res Only)


Photo credit: Bernard Hull


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