Sunday 28 February 2010

Edinburgh Studio Opera presents Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen

You wait years for a production of a Janacek opera, then all at once two appear, and of the same one at that. Of course, these aren't really comparable productions of The Cunning Little Vixen: one is at the Royal Opera House at next month under that doyen of Janacek interpreters, Sir Charles Mackerras, the other is a student production mounted by Edinburgh Studio Opera. And yet, despite tackling a work that is by no means simple, the amateurs need no apology.

That isn't to say this was a perfect reading, it wasn't. But it was a most enjoyable evening at the opera and, always important with such productions (given that friends and relations are likely to number heavily in the audience), it felt like someone meeting Leos Janacek for the first time might well be tempted to get better acquainted.

Wisely they had opted to perform the work in English (and if Charles Mackerras is happy to, and will be doing at Covent Garden, then who can object). This removed the need to master Czech and, in theory, the need for surtitles. And for the most part it did: the eponymous Vixen (a show-stealing performance from Louise Adler) was particularly clear, so to the Forrester (Philip Smith), who, along with the Fox (Suzanne McGrath), provided the evening's other vocal highlights. However, in some of the more minor parts, not a single word was intelligible (in fairness, this may not have been helped by a last minute juggling of roles occasioned by illness in the cast). In fairness to them, it must be said that I've heard worse diction from professionals. Given the straight production, there was little difficulty following the broad thrust of the narrative (though it was still probably as well to have read the synopsis first).

Nicholas Fletcher did a solid job conducting a difficult score, and for the most part the playing of the orchestra was good, bringing out Janacek's unique sonorities well (though some of the brass fanfares were cruelly exposing).

The production, from director Nicholas Bone and producer Nick Morris, was for the most part fairly traditional, and pretty economical, the set almost unchanged throughout. Notably though, the, shall we say, raunchier aspects of the plot were rather accentuated.

Some touches were nicely carried off: the TV wheeled on playing a fire image for the men to gather round was particularly nice. Other aspects worked less well, such as the somewhat comic choreography in the wedding scene or the instances at the start and end when some of those on stage were called upon to mime with instruments (something which, as a rule of thumb, should never be attempted unless absolutely unavoidable as it almost always looks silly - Update 2010-03-08: in fairness, as the comment below notes, given what's in the script this is hard to avoid). I'm not entirely clear what was going on with the chap twirling his umbrella and the trap didn't quite work, due to the way it was placed (doubtless where it was due to lack of stage space); all the same, it looked like it has been got out ready to be set, and then abandoned. There might have been more stage space to play with had they not dominated it with a huge raked platform, whose use didn't quite seem to justify its existence. Still, in an age where productions tend to wilfully and pointlessly flout the text and aim to confuse even those who know the work well, such reservations were fairly minor.

All in all, it was well worth seeing, and if you like Janacek, or even more if you've never encountered his music, it runs Monday to Wednesday at the Pleasance and you should try to catch it. Our Next Janacek fix in Edinburgh isn't until April's Excursions of Mr Broucek, I can't wait for that.


Anonymous said...

Nice review - to be fair, though, the miming of instruments that is referred to is actually specified by Janacek in the score, and one of the characters sings "Come on old chap let's have a bit of a concert" just before so it's a bit hard to avoid.

Tam Pollard said...

That's a fair point.

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