The Cunning Little Vixen, at the Royal Opera House

James InverneFri 26th March 2010
Emma Matthews as Vixen Sharp Ears (Photo: Johan Persson / Royal Opera)Emma Matthews as Vixen Sharp Ears (Photo: Johan Persson / Royal Opera)

Sir Charles Mackerras delivers a Janácek masterclass

Hearing Sir Charles Mackerras conduct Janácek in the opera house is one of life’s great treats yet, until last night, I had somehow always missed out. And a more fitting work than The Cunning Little Vixen I cannot imagine. The great cycle-of-life tale of Vixen Sharp Ears, and the animals and humans who encounter her, with its profound juxtaposition of themes of age and rejuvenation, seems never more apt.

Mackerras is now 84 and though the body can appear frail – he didn’t manage to struggle up to the stage for a bow – the energy and life in his conducting has surely never burned brighter, while his cheery smile (from the pit) at the curtain call was almost schoolboyish in its sense of delight.

If there was no new production for Mackerras’s first Covent Garden Vixen, it scarcely mattered. Not when Bill Bryden’s 1990 staging is in such fabulous shape. At once pastoral and industrial – wheels whir within wheels (the stage is dominated by an enormous rotating metal sphere, in which characters variously dance, hang and slide, while what looks like a circular saw seems to cut its way up through the stage), traversing the revolutions of industry and nature. At the same time Bryden renders the creatures of the forest as distinctive human social types, defined by their jobs or their pastimes – whether it be the gentrified boxing bunnies or the Great War air-ace dragonfly.

What makes this the more fascinating is that Janácek sets the action in and around the forest, so at one remove as it were from society. It is not only a topsy-turvy view of city life but also a sideways-on one. We may not be able to see the wood for the trees in this forest but we can certainly size up the nearby towns and cities with the absolute clarity that is also apparent in Mackerras’s ultra-precise conducting. Precise, yes, but far from unfeeling – and the emotional impact is all the more intense for its specific nature (the high violin lines of summer in the final scene, for instance, became bright and almost unbearably intense, for all the world as if one had accidentally gazed into the sun).

The cast were a characterful bunch, Emma Matthews just lovely as the vixen, singing with bell-like tone. Elisabeth Meister, a substitution as the fox, was full of manly swagger enjoyably over-compensating for his shyness around Sharp Ears (and a mix of steel and elegance in Meister’s soprano suggests a big career ahead). And Christopher Maltman is maturing into a very major baritone indeed, his beefed-up tone fined down nicely for the Forester’s wise reflections on man and nature.

But this was Mackerras’s show. The last performance is April 1. If you can get to Covent Garden, don’t miss it.  Otherwise, I do urge you to try and catch the broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on May 29.

James Inverne

James Inverne is former editor of Gramophone. He now runs a music management + PR company.

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