In a bold and courageous piece of programming, Victorian Opera has given Melbourne its first fully professional season of Cunning Little Vixen in a generation. Janáček’s tale is of a likeable but really not so cunning vixen, whose death is transcended by nature’s regeneration. Bringing this story and its extraordinary, experimental score to life throws up quite a few challenges and these have been met with VO’s trademark resourcefulness.

The first set of challenges are conceptual. How do human beings play insects and other animals in a convincing way? Roger Kirk’s colourful costumes for these characters immediately aid the suspension of disbelief. Both charming and comical as required, Kirk’s designs cleverly appropriate everyday items to artistic ends, whether it be the frog on a green bouncing ball, or the hi-vis jump suits for the chorus or the suitably cocky get-up of the Cockerel. By contrast, Richard Roberts’s stark set with its large, denuded trees is evocatively lit by Trudy Dalgleish’s lighting design, effectively communicating the passing of seasons.

Cunning Little Vixen, Victorian OperaMaia Hanrahan, Maggie Orr, Eliza O’Connor, Celeste Lazarenko, Ruby Ditton, Dimity Shepherd, Harmony Lee, Emilie Washington in Victorian Opera’s Cunning Little Vixen. Photos © Jeff Busby

Into the seeming Neverland of these fabled creatures come the mortal, human characters: aging, frail and without hope of regeneration. Kirk creates for them dark costumes with a predominance of grey and black to emphasise their earthbound reality.

All these elements together with Stuart Maunder’s well considered direction get the audience into the right headspace to deal with the second set of challenges: the musical.

Janáček had a remarkable creative renewal in his sixties and Vixen is but one of the many artistic fruits from this period. Secure in his own ability, he felt free to explore issues of texture, timbre and rhythm.

Cunning Little Vixen, Victorian OperaMichelle McCarthy, Cristina Russo, Belinda Paterson, Alexandra Ioan, Lynlee Williams, Kerrie Bolton, Diana Simpson

In developing his own libretto for Acts I and II, Janáček followed the original source (a serialised novel about forest life developed to accompany some pre-existent illustrations) fairly closely. This means where no text exists in the original, instrumental interludes carry the story. The episodic nature of the music needs careful pacing to ensure onward flow, a feat that was for the most part neatly achieved by conductor, Jack Symonds.

The use of English composer, Jonathan Dove’s 1998 chamber orchestration was undoubtedly a sensible choice for a number of reasons, not least economic. The band was certainly ample enough to support the singers, but in the rather physically small and acoustically dry confines of the Arts Centre Playhouse some of the composer’s lusher utterances came across as a tad thin. As the ballet season is running concurrently in the adjoining State Theatre, Orchestra Victoria is supplemented by a number of guest musicians, but this had no bearing on the musical outcome which was disciplined throughout. In particular, the demanding wind writing in Act III was well dispatched.

Cunning Little Vixen, Victorian OperaCeleste Lazarenko and Antoinette Halloran

The vocal music provided for each of the principals in this opera varies widely. In the case of the vixen and the fox, the fox is given the lion’s share, so to speak. Antoinette Halloran revels in her amorous material, clearly enjoying the foxy seduction of Celeste Lazarenko as the vixen. Given that the vixen is not given an equal opportunity for musical ardour, one of the major challenges in playing the title role is to communicate a mixture of vulnerability, insouciance and nascent sexuality by sheer stage presence. Lazarenko rises to this challenge with considerable conviction.

In what may have been a nod to the “eternal feminine” Janáček cast the male principals as mortals. Led by Barry Ryan as the Forester, all are well cast, singing and acting with admirable skill and versatility. In the final scene Ryan delivers the Forester’s apotheosis with touching sincerity, making all the poignant his character’s mix of bravado and sensitivity. Brenton Spiteri, apart from his cameo as the Mosquito, effectively relates the Schoolmaster’s regret in not snaring the village beauty as his bride. Jeremy Kleeman is a wonderfully haughty Badger, but also a Parson full of humanity. Samuel Dundas as Harašta has all the necessary swagger to be the killer of the vixen.

Cunning Little Vixen, Victorian OperaBarry Ryan, Brenton Spiteri, Paul Biencourt, Jeremy Kleeman

Janáček’s inspired use of children’s voices for the insects and the fox cubs works a treat, especially when they are as well prepared as they are in this production. The adult chorus blended seamlessly into the action and its small cameos were all well delivered, most notably Alexandra Ioan as the Cockerel and Danielle Calder as Tyrenka.

All in all, VO’s cunning has been to make Janáček’s “merry little thing with a sad ending” a charming and enjoyable experience. Go take a look for yourself.

Victorian Opera’s Cunning Little Vixen is at Arts Centre Melbourne until July 1.


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