(Photo: Ali Wright)
The second half of Opera Holland Park’s renewed summer offering opened this week with the late philosophical comedy by LeoÅ¡ JanÃ¡Äek “The Cunning Little Vixen”, directed by Jessica Cottis and directed by Stephen Barlow.
One of the odd gifts of the lockdown for Londoners – those lucky enough to have gardens anyway – was the opportunity, by working from home, to experience the rhythms of fox city life more intimately, which intertwine with ours in complex ways: families sleeping on trash roofs for leftover takeaways, making their dens at the back of the garden. Some scientists believe that foxes are now undergoing a process of self-domestication in cities similar to dogs and cats thousands of years ago. There are undoubtedly dozens of them who take advantage of whatever is thrown away by OHP picnickers every night.
Barlow offers a lively and witty realization of the drama that explores this entanglement of the natural and the urban. A central prop is a green municipal recycling bin, which serves as a backdrop and Badger’s bar for the hostel, an apt symbol for humanity’s (failed) obligations to the environment. It is a wise choice for this place. CEO James Clutton reminded us ahead of the show that every chair in the auditorium has been salvaged from theaters and opera houses across the country, once props in countless productions. Much like this summer’s theater, designed by takis, was made from recycled materials.
The animals are wearing hi-vis vests and the frog is playing with a soccer ball which the young vixen is chasing. Chickens are cleaners, led by a tyrannical costumed rooster boss, an image that unites exploitation in natural and social hierarchies. (In this opera, the human and animal worlds are not only reflected, but intertwined – the Vixen doubles in a cameo as redhead beauty Terynka.) The Forester is dressed as a council employee. Perhaps it’s a sideways look at the essential, low-paid workers who are barely recognized but essential to the pace and lifeblood of the city. Le Renard seduces la Renarde with not a dead rabbit but a sandwich from Pret in a scholarly joke (urban foxes thrive on the countless leftovers of the capital’s take-out meals).
Although this is an opera ostensibly about animals – a number for our animality – it is traversed by moments of extraordinary human insight. The pub scene in Act 3 is just one example, where the forester and the barmaid share a melancholy reflection on the now deceased priest, who finds himself alone in another parish, someone they don’t. didn’t even like it very much but that was nonetheless part of the furniture of their life. It is an opera that sings the silent pains of the ephemeral – as well as the painful need for renewal.
Barlow is thrifty on props but doesn’t lack for show, helped by mood lighting from Rory Beaton. In the opening scene, children enter through the auditorium with brightly colored kites, in a wonderful use of the airy space of the theater. The final scene, with its peaceful elegiac rapprochement with death and transfiguration, sees these kites return, circling the Forester and bathed in the light of a sunset, which ablaze at the final chord; the Vixen appears behind, basking in the light. The conclusion is full of life. A little sentimental? Perhaps. But moving? More than a little.
Playful & Idiomatic
Norman Tucker’s playful and idiomatic translation is edited for a lot of humor and site specificity. The Fox comes from the Forest Hill neighborhood; the Vixen travels to Camden. “Someday women will be conducting operas about you,” exclaims the Vixen-style Vixen, gesturing to Jessica Cottis, who receives a name later in the same scene from the Owl. The fox trap from act three is, again, a Pret a Manger sandwich. The reference to Holland Park’s peacocks may be an exaggerated gesture, however – these are the flies that buzz in JanÃ¡Äek’s orchestra, and their symbolic importance as harbingers of death and decay is lost. .
It is presented in a superb downsized orchestration by Jonathan Dove, who carved an ingenious groove with these arrangements (A happy consequence of the pandemic could be that its limits encourage fringe and chamber companies to explore them further). The only place it perhaps lacked oomph was in an undernourished act two finale, with a few overexposed brass passages, although the chorus certainly made up for that with a powerful, energetic vocals.
Although small in size, its arrangement captures the most sumptuous moments of the score – Act 2 loves music as luxuriously Wagnerian as ever – and its crispness. Its relative transparency elsewhere matched well with Holland Park’s airy, open canopy – yet another piece of production that seemed to fit the frame perfectly. The addition of a whistling accordion was a particularly inspired adaptation, by turns folkloric and melancholy.
Jessica Cottis conducted with panache and tenderness, in a quick review of the score. After some initial trial and error with the ensemble, the City of London Sinfonia more than found its marks and performed lavishly throughout, especially in the more Straussian moments of JanÃ¡Äek’s music. The raw, unbridled lyricism that allows his music to bypass the brain and go straight to the guts was way ahead, especially in the radiant conclusion of the third act.
The large auditorium meant inevitable acoustic problems, as with their âMarriage of Figaroâ; if the singers were facing, they just couldn’t be heard. But that’s a minor complaint in such a focused and progressive night of drama, which can take a few lost lines.
Jennifer France sang the title role with fierce sparkle, the top notes bright and scathing. It’s a great voice but also lively and flexible, and has shown no signs of weakening. She plays the besieged aspects of the role – more provocative than cunning – but is painfully vulnerable in the first bursts of love. Most amazing, perhaps, was a delicate and tender “yes” to the sweet climax of the love scene in act two – a perfect messa di voce, swelling with passion and softening with a caress. She was matched in power by Julia SporsÃ©n’s Fox, who was exuberant and young at every turn.
Grant Doyle also excelled as a Forester, except for a few pinched top notes. He convincingly embodied the weariness and elegiac qualities of the role and sang with remarkable clarity of diction. Ashley Riches took the place of the poacher at the last minute, and strolled and sang with a cheerful threat.
John Savournin doubled as priest and badger, low-key down to his gloomy memory of a shattered love affair in act three, the voice of bitter decorum in the opera. The schoolmaster from Charne Rochford was in a lively and tender voice. Elsewhere, Natasha Argawal and Harriet Eyley gave effusive performances as LapÃ¡k and Chocholka (the latter sings the title role later in the race). The children of the cast, like assorted fox cubs, a frog (a delicate Daniel White) and young Vixen (a mischievous Estella Charlesworth) all played with generosity and gusto.
This is an open-hearted and lively performance of a perfect summer opera.