Brimming with imaginative details, Victorian Opera’s beautifully realised staging of Cunning Little Vixen is a real charmer.
A touching tale of the circle of life, Janáček’s deceptively light 1924 opera is very well served by this colourful, creative staging. From the first notes of the overture, a merry menagerie of forest creatures comes wriggling to life. A talented company of around 30 performers plays multiple roles and sings the challenging score with a deft confidence that derives from expert preparation.
Highly accomplished young conductor Jack Symonds, who serves as artistic director of Sydney Chamber Opera, demonstrates his musical intelligence as he makes an all too rare Melbourne appearance. Twenty musicians from Orchestra Victoria play a rich chamber arrangement of Janáček’s score. While the challenge of the complex music is evident, the innate skill of the musicians and Symonds’ meticulous conducting successfully bring the score to life. What the music may lack in traditional melody is more than made up for in fascinating use of rhythm and economic use of a wide collection of instruments.
Running at a swift 115 minutes (including interval), the incident-rich action bubbles along briskly, yet the scenes have a languorous internal pace. Director Stuart Maunder skillfully balances moments of delightful humour with darker developments in the tale. The opera is ultimately moving, and concludes with a brief but astonishing scene that momentarily removes the English language barrier between man and nature.
Eye catching design is a feature of this wonderful production. Legendary costume designer Roger Kirk creates the animal kingdom with ingenuity and wit to spare. Buzzing bumblebees, a cricket in cricket whites and a funky owl in a white fringed dress with hot pink highlights are amongst the delights on display. In sharp contrast to the joy of nature, the human world is denoted by sombre black and grey tones.
Set designer Richard Roberts and lighting designer Trudy Dalgleish have worked closely to craft the pristine setting. Flanking the slightly raked stage, large white panels are positioned overhead to pick up the lighting effects of the changing seasons whilst allowing the cast to enter and exit from inky blackness. Five massive trees made of metals poles gleam with the starkness of winter or reflect the warm tones of autumn and spring.
The production could have stood on the strength of its design, so it is a joy to see such strong, versatile set of artists in the cast. Each principal sings and acts with flair, all the while projecting a spark of the sheer enjoyment of being on stage.
With the class of an elder statesman, veteran baritone Barry Ryan grounds the company as Forester. In the absence of arias in the score, Ryan nonetheless takes every chance to impress with his smooth, unblemished tone. Given the suspension of disbelief required for his character, Ryan’s commitment to the role sets the tone for the whole opera.
Looking like a fetching East European beauty in fur-trimmed, form-fitting brown dress, Celeste Lazarenko cultivates the requisite sympathy for Vixen, who is rather murderous for a heroine. Star soprano Antoinette Halloran brings her vivacious charm to the role of Fox, creating sparks in Fox’s courtship of the beguiling Vixen.
If Dimity Shepherd is somewhat unrecognisable as Forester’s nagging Wife, she completely disappears into the role of the fabulous owl, strutting in her hot pink boots and working her hot pink wig with far-out flair.
Three of Australia’s top young male singers give tremendous support in featured roles. Tenor Brenton Spiteri has fun as the hungry Mosquito before channeling a deep river of regret as the lonely Schoolmaster. Baritone Samuel Dundas conveys the self-centred focus of poacher Harašta, ostensibly a villain yet, from his perspective, just acting on his impulses to survive. Bass-baritone Jeremy Kleeman begins the opera as the fastidious badger, before deftly switching to the humble Parson.
Both the adult and children’s chorus excel not only in vocals but also in confident movement. Special mention to Lisha Ooi who sang the crucial lines of Frog with unwavering poise and a lovely tone.
Presented at a scale well above a boutique production, Cunning Little Vixen is a welcome addition to Melbourne’s 2017 opera calendar. Very well suited to young newcomers, the opera is also sure to enchant seasoned theatregoers.
Cunning Little Vixen plays at Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne until 1 July 2017.
The Cunning Little Vixen program can be read online.
Photos: Jeff Busby