THE CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN
Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 7th March, 2013
Janáček’s opera is an episodic story, along the lines of the adventures of Brer Rabbit: clever animal protagonist outwits a range of creatures with tricks and bare-faced cheek. Here the trickster is Sharpears, a vixen who, as a cub, is captured by the Forester. His attempts to domesticate her lead to trouble: a child’s leg is bitten in an incident that would make the Daily Mail more rabid than usual, and all the pretty chickens are murdered in one fell swoop as the vixen makes her escape, clicking her heels like a cartoon character.
We are most definitely on her side. She is a fox who speaks up for the downtrodden. The chickens fail to rise to her call for direct feminist resistance to their exploitation. She despises their ‘right-wing conservatism’ and slaughters them. She evicts a bouffant-haired badger from his sett, decrying his supposed entitlement. “Being rich does not make you respectable,” she admonishes him. She later goes on to point out that “Animals have rights too” – she could be speaking up for beleaguered foxes everywhere and also, topically, the latest to be victimised by Man and his media, the deer that are apparently threatening all that is decent in society. The points are glibly made; Sharpears is a free spirit, making satirical swipes at the establishment rather than provoking any kind of serious or detailed debate. The emphasis is on fun, after all.
The set, a green and pleasant landscape that changes with the seasons, splits apart for the human habitations: the Forester’s yard, the pub… It’s a storybook illustration writ large, as rich and lush and full of life as the score.
Sophie Bevan is a mass of energy as clever Sharpears. She spends a lot of her time on her back, cycling her legs in the air, from the sheer joy of being alive. Her costume doesn’t disguise her human form. Bunches in her bobbed hair suggest pointed ears; a boa represents her tail; she wears a fringed frock like a flapper dress, reminding us of the opera’s first appearance in 1924. Sharpears is more of a hedonist than an activist.
Jonathan Summers’s Forester is avuncular and disgruntled, disappointed by his lot in life. His life is entwined with the vixen’s – there is a longing there, to own her, perhaps, or to be like her. There are times when the orchestra swells and his voice is engulfed by the crescendos, but the overall sound is so sumptuous, you don’t really mind.
Sarah Castle, in plus fours, is the handsome fox who courts Sharpears in a funny and charming love duet. The scene borders on operatic parody but it’s so enchanting you buy into it. In due course, when their litter bursts out of their underground den, it must be the cutest scene in all opera.
But it’s not all fun and frolics. Even though the animals are very human in appearance and behaviour, there is harshness and cruelty in this picturesque world. Defiant to the last, Sharpears is gunned down by a poacher (David Stout). This moment, even if you know it’s coming, is superbly handled by director David Pountney, with dramatic lighting (designed by Nick Chelton). For a moment the world stops still. Everything is silent. Sharpears is dead.
Life goes on. The Forester is still morose but he returns to the forest where he first encountered Sharpears. One of her daughters is dancing for joy. This is the circle of life and it moves us all…Etc.
Touching, funny and bittersweet, this is a thoroughly enchanting evening that manages to be more than cartoon capers.