Opera North’s The Cunning Little Vixen

The human condition, the circle of life and the importance of nature on New Briggate
February 6, 2023

It may be a drab, winters night in Leeds, but as the curtain rises on Opera North’s production of Leoš Janáček’s ‘The Cunning Little Vixen’, we are transported to the warmth and colour of a magical creature-filled forest.

Caterpillars slink, squirrels scamper, a dragonfly darts as a mosquito with a giant proboscis, gorges himself on the alcohol fuelled blood of a napping forester. So, the tale of Vixen Sharp Ears unfolds.

Vixen (Elin Pritchard) is taken home by the Forester (James Rutherford) where she is treated cruelly by the Forester's family. Vixen eventually manages to escape, and the creatures of the forest help her on her journey back in the forest to raise a family with the Fox (Heather Lowe).

However, there are two worlds at work here. We begin in the world of the forest and the creatures, who live joyfully in the moment, but then, the stage breaks open to reveal the difficult world of the humans. For Forester, the School-Master (Paul Nilon) and Parson (Henry Waddington), their world is very different. It’s a world fixed in the past, lingering on missed opportunities and the memories of lost loves. While the circle of life continues in the forest, it’s only after the Vixen’s eventual death that the Forester begins to see things differently and appreciate the beauty of his surroundings.

And it’s in this human experience that Janáček shares some of the opera’s themes. While Vixen is the catalyst for change, it is Forester’s character that brings us the profound insights into the human existence. Themes that it’s never too late to change, that there is always time for renewal.

Claire Pascoe as Innkeeper's Wife, Paul Nilon as Schoolmaster and James Rutherford as Forester (Image: Tristram Kenton)

These themes echo with the life of composer Leoš Janáček’s himself, who came to fame later in his own life. It was not until he was in his sixties that Janáček began to compose a number of operas including Kata Kabanova (1921) The Cunning Little Vixen (1923) and Markopulos Case (1926).

Vixen is arguably Janáček’s most famous opera and was inspired by a comic strip published in a Prague newspaper in 1920. Janáček’s fascination with the animal characters articulates through his exploration of the changing relationships of animals and humans, within themselves and with each other.

This production was originally part of Janáček’s cycle shared by Scottish Opera and Welsh National Opera. It is elegantly directed by Sir David Pountney and designed by the late Maria Bjornson. The undulating hillocks covered with various nooks and burrows, with overhanging foliage creates an enchanting world.

The costumes, designed by Maria Björnson reference the animals’ colours and shapes, with Vixen’s 1920’s flapper dress a lovely nod to the time when the work was written.

One of the most impressive parts of this production is its unified approach. This large and diverse cast handles the production with a lightness of touch that is inspiring with its size and diversity of age groups.

There were some standout scenes, including the opening itself, where the forest appears to literally rollout in front of us. Steam punk birds hang in the trees, curious creatures come and go through the landscape. In another brilliant scene, Vixen attempts a feminist emancipation of the chickens in the chicken coop, but when her attempts are thwarted, the chickens meet a terrible, and terribly funny, end. The emergence of the Fox and Vixen’s pack of cubs is also lovely moment, particularly when Vixen laments her inability to recall just how many children she actually has.

The children in The Cunning Little Vixen (Image: Tristram Kenton)

Conductor Andrew Gourlay makes his Opera North debut, crisply handling Janáček’s score which integrates opera and folk music, through an original, modern style based on the rhythms of Moravia, the eastern region of the Czech Republic.

This is a quirky opera which is suitable for all ages. In many ways it is a simple tale told in an easy-to-follow way, with its short, pacy scenes, keeping audiences engaged. Yet this tale also carries deeper commentary on the human condition, the circle of life, the importance of nature and man’s connection to it.

While the opera itself is suitable for the whole family, there are a few other programmes specifically for the under 10’s, including Little Listeners: Mini Vixen, an interactive, family-friendly show which is touring across the north of England. There is also Little ONes: The Cunning Little Vixen music and movement workshops for pre-schoolers in Leeds.

The Cunning Little Vixen runs till the 1stof April at Leeds Grand Theatre.

CLICK HERE for tickets and info