Monday 28 May 2012

The Cunning Little Vixen at Glyndebourne, or, Once More Magic

As with last year's extraordinary Meistersinger, this new Glyndebourne production has attracted at least two carping reviews. For my money these are just as inexplicable as were the same persons criticisms a year ago.

Director Melly Still passes my ultimate test for an operatic director in this production. She convinced me that she had read the libretto and listened to the music and that an understanding of both those components informed her whole conception. Assisted by Tom Pye's sets, Dinah Collin's costumes, Paule Constable's lighting, Maxine Doyle's choreography and above all by Vladimir Jurowski's spot on reading of the score this is a true complete operatic evening in which stage, pit and performers form an organic whole.

This successful construction is begun by a beguilingly beautiful set. In the centre, stretching pretty much the height of the Glyndebourne stage is a large tree made of a whole series of pieces of wood, in which perch the observant birds. Behind it stretching up within the hillside is a twisting tunnel which doubles through the show as Badger/Vixen's underground burrow, human trackways through the forest, and in the final moving moments a path perhaps to whatever might lie beyond. The subtle changes of the seasons which are so integral to this story are picked out with spot on use of lighting and the simplest of stage effects – the fall of leaves, the billowing of snowy sheets. And the pacing of those effects perfectly matches the tempi of the score.

The second key element is that Still demonstrates in this production the capacity for close and effective direction of her principals – something else which so often seems to desert the operatic director. There are many moments that could be cited to illustrate this but I think the finest is the courtship of the Vixen (Lucy Crowe) and Fox (Emma Bell). Still successfully, and in my view rightly, blurs the line between human and animal in this production. This is one of the ways in which she reflects central things in the overall piece – the way in which we are all part of the commonality of nature, the way that the desires of the humans (for example of the poacher and his girl) are not really so different to those of the Vixen and the Fox. Thus, here, the two made me think of young teenagers taking first tentative steps in emotions that are both blissful and terrifying. It was gripping and moving to watch.

Through the whole production there's an inventive thoughtfulness. The props used to add animality, most especially the foxes tails could in the hands of less accomplished performers become clumsy and ineffective – but there's a wonderful grace and sense of life to how they use them. The interpolated choreography fits in seamlessly with everything else – powerfully so at the very beginning when the Vixen is captured and her mother dances her grief. I can't recall seeing that moment done in this way before but it seemed perfectly to fit with the music. Still also has a sense of wit, but one which is in harmony with the score. I would not have thought of making the nosy reporter-like Mr Jay into a 1930s newspaper man who looks as if he might have stepped out of an early Cary Grant movie, but it fits his music and the way he's described in the libretto. I also thought I detected in the costuming and make-up of Adrian Thompson's Schoolteacher a resemblance to the classic photographs of Janacek himself. The Schoolteacher's obsession with Terynka can quite easily recall to mind Janacek's obsession with Kamila Stosslova and in other directorial hands this could become clumsy and irritating. But in the first place not everybody will notice it (and I may be quite wrong about it). In the second place I felt it fitted in with a libretto which elsewhere includes the mocking remark, people may even write operas about this story.

I've not yet said much about the music. This is a production with not a weak musical link (another thing one can very rarely say). You depend, as with say Billy Budd, on having a first rank ensemble in small parts. All of them sing and act excellently. I've already mentioned the fine performances of Crowe and Bell in their key scene together. Elsewhere Crowe completely inhabits the part – funny, playful, moving – she's a joy to watch. Finally, there is a marvellously moving performance from Sergei Leiferkus as the Forester. All of them are supported by superb playing from the London Philharmonic Orchestra and a spot on reading of the score from Vladimir Jurowski on the podium.

Do not be deceived then by the carping of some critics. This is another wonderful Glyndebourne evening. And if you imagine the price will be beyond you, according to the website the next three performances (29th May, 31st May, 3rd June) have availability from £40/£45. This is not to be missed.

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