The Cunning Little Vixen - Royal Opera House, 18 March 2010 (first night)
Perhaps it's unsurprising Covent Garden's Cunning Little Vixen is looking a bit dog-eared these days. Bill Bryden's production debuted twenty years ago, making it older than many of the smaller cast members. Stage technology has moved on even if budgets haven't, and the faded, knocked-up amateurism lacks the charm it may once have possessed.
William Dudley's designs are literal, almost illustrative. Bestial extras like a two-kid caterpillar and a fluttering aerial dragonfly retain their ingenious charm. But the giant hamster wheel 'circle of life' that dominates the stage is literally and metaphorically clunky. Some of the other elements, like the twirling carwash brushes and stage-slicing chainsaw clock, are simply mystifying. Buried within is some point about the passage of time perhaps. But what exactly? That's not obvious.
Though the tale Bryden tells embraces both the vixen's life story and Janácek's broader message about love, life and renewal, somehow neither angle is quite as clear as it should be. The Vixen's foul trick to take over the Badger's sett passes for nothing, as do some other key plot points. The whole tavern scene barely registers, the humans overwhelmed by a visual orgy of giant green bottles and spinning brushes. Even the menagerie of cutely costumed kids can't compensate for a fundamental failure to tell the story.
The final act was the most gripping, perhaps because it was the least encumbered with whimsical clutter, or perhaps because some noisy tears from the audience as the Forester fired his rifle reminded that despite its comic-book origins, this is no children's opera.
But concessions to the light voices of the cast were sadly limited by Sir Charles's assertive weighting. Not much point in performing in English if the singers can't be heard, but only Elisabeth Meister, the short-notice substitute Fox, had the lung power to cut through the orchestra consistently. Making the most of her golden opportunity, she gave a sparky, uninhibited performance.
Christopher Maltman's Forester was underpowered and Emma Matthews seemed an odd casting choice as the Vixen. Clearly better suited to higher, lighter roles, her flutingly clear singing above the stave was outweighed by a tendency to squalliness below as she tried her hardest to project. The most rewarding performances were in the smaller parts, Matthew Rose's Harašta particularly.
At least it's a livelier evening than Tamerlano. Though it could hardly be less. And perhaps the Royal Opera House have been listening to complaints about early starts - the 8pm kick-off permits the unaccustomed luxury of dining beforehand.
******** lots more photos on next page ********