A cunning little masterpiece

Stanislav Lolek’s ‘Vixen Sharp Ears’

Stanislav Lolek’s ‘Vixen Sharp Ears’

“Is this a fairy tale or reality? Reality or fairy tale?” Leoš Janáček’s heavy-eyed Forester steps out of his role towards the end of The Cunning Little Vixen and poses the very question we in the audience have been battling with all evening. From the first bracken-drenched chord we are plunged into a world of Moravian ambiguity – left to boggle at the anthropomorphic shenanigans set in motion by a plucky frog, as he hops into the sleeping Forester’s lap.

Stripped of the sylvan staging and lavish costumes we usually associate with Vixen, in this semi-staging at the Barbican Hall director Peter Sellars looked to more subversive means in order to conjure that heady, dream-like landscape – and blur the tragicomic lines between animal and human. Is the Forester still at slumber when he writhes sensuously on the floor with the adolescent Vixen? Are animals so sexually liberal that the Fox and Vixen must be married immediately after mating? Is the violence exhibited by Harašta confined to his humanity, or an element within nature itself? This equivocacy is, of course, entirely to Janáček's point, and Sellars expertly pinpoints Vixen’s satire on the shifting values of western culture.

A haphazard video backdrop designed by Nick Hillel and Adam Smith – inevitably placed alongside the surtitles – added little flavour but plenty of distraction to an already fizzing palette. It’s hard to feel much when you’re so busy flitting from screen to words to action. That said, the choice to stage Vixen in its original Czech was a wise one: Janáček’s music is so awash with the rhythms of his mother tongue that much of the opera’s magic is lost when translated to English. Equally apparent are the sounds of the Moravian forest-dwellers among whom Janáček immersed himself before writing Vixen. “For years I have listened to them, memorising their speech; I’m at home with them,” he wrote. Indeed, the skipping, insectile rhythms and lean melodies that infect his late style are never more apparent than in this wooded masterpiece.

Read the full review on Bachtrack