The opera that Janácek drew from a newspaper cartoon strip is, on the surface, a charmingly naive tale contrasting the wisdom of the animal kingdom with the folly of humanity. Look deeper and you find a humorous allegory of birth, procreation and death. Here was a 70-year-old composer fondly recalling the rites of life and reflecting that we humans are not so different from the inhabitants of the forest. The problem facing the interpreter is how to realise Janácek’s mature fantasy, and simultaneously appeal to the audience’s imagination, without turning the stage into an operatic kindergarten.
It is a leap that Glyndebourne’s excruciatingly cutesy new production fails to make. The set consists of a maypole-tree and a steeply raked landscape that could have stepped out of a children’s picture-book. The animals are brightly-coloured gypsies, the humans drab museum pieces. The orchestral interludes have been turned into ballet-pantomimes – not a bad idea, but torpedoed here by generic choreography (Maxine Doyle), with swarms of kiddies pretending to be animals. If it were a school play, you would want to coo.
You can hardly blame the director, Melly Still, or her designers Tom Pye and Dinah Collin. This Vixen may show little sign of an interpretative intelligence, but within their terms of reference, established by Still’s similarly illustrative 2009 Rusalka, they have done a professional job. The problem lies with Glyndebourne itself. The more obsessed it becomes with marketing its accessibility and appealing to countrywide cinema audiences, the more timid and parochial its productions become. It’s as if the role of artistic director, long vacant, has been filled by the finance director. And yet, when it comes to language of performance, Glyndebourne is as snobbish as ever: why sing a “vernacular” opera such as Vixen in Czech, when most of the audience and cast are English?
Two powerful performances surmount their prosaic surroundings. Lucy Crowe traces the Vixen’s sexual blossoming with coy charm, lissom physicality and radiant vocalism, matched by Emma Bell’s rapturous Fox, a stage-filling portrayal. Sergei Leiferkus makes an honest Forester, and the London Philharmonic does its best to keep up with the breakneck speeds proposed by Vladimir Jurowski.