The temporary, glass-walled theatre that Garsington Opera erects each year for its summer season affords long country vistas. The rolling hills of the Getty estate at Wormsley make an unusually evocative backdrop for an opera – ideal for Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, the life-and-death tale of Vixen Sharp-Ears and the forest community around her.
This is the first of Janáček’s full-length operas to be put on by Garsington Opera. Although the rather prosaic sets indoors do not match the visual poetry outside, Daniel Slater’s production treads a fine line between comedy and touching drama, and there is a high-quality cast.
In Janáček’s hands, the animals in this opera seem almost more human than the humans themselves. Slater’s production handles this as delightfully as any, clothing the baby frog in wellington boots, the hens as washerwomen (producing outsized eggs down a chute) and Vixen Sharp-Ears and her mate, Fox Golden-Stripe, in jackets lined with fox fur. The human and animal worlds come even closer when the Forester starts to dream of the Vixen as his perfect, young, liberated woman. Slater has the ballet sequences showing dancers as their doubles in a tender relationship – not what Janáček asks for, but an imaginative way of exploring a deeper emotional layer to the opera.
Claire Booth is a marvellously vital Vixen, singing and playing with an energy that makes her the life-force of the opera. As her shy beau, the Fox, Victoria Simmonds captures the burgeoning romance between them touchingly (there is no doubt who will wear the trousers in this family) and a whole menagerie of lively young performers plays the forest wildlife. The human characters are no less strongly cast with Lucy Schaufer as the Forester’s Wife, Timothy Robinson as the Schoolmaster, Henry Waddington as the Priest and Joshua Bloom as the poacher.
In the close acoustic of Garsington’s opera house every detail of Janáček’s music, from strumming harp to crawling low bassoon, sounded in close-up and the conductor, Garry Walker, kept the performance on its toes. As Grant Doyle sang out sonorously in the Forester’s closing paean to nature, the sun was setting outside over the Wormsley estate, art and nature in sync. Janáček would have approved.