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True to its tradition, the Canadian Opera Company for its winter season offers us a well know staple and and a relatively unknown opera. Czech composer Leos Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen was last produced by the COC more than 25 years ago and that is a long coffee break.
We are happy for the opportunity for seeing this original and difficult work again in a laudable production from the English National Opera directed by Jamie Manton and conducted for the COC by Johannes Debus.
The Cunning Little Vixen’s cast consists of a veritable forest of animals, insects and a few people. We have the little vixen who is abducted by the Forester, mistreated by his wife, escapes, grows into a big vixen and has a brood of little vixens. We meet a stageful of the following: a cricket, a grasshopper, a frog, a mosquito, a badger, an owl, a dozen hens, a rooster, a jay, a woodpecker and no doubt a few others.
Humankind is represented by the Forester (Christpher Purves), his nasty Wife (mezzo-soprano Megan Latham), the Schoolteacher (tenor Wesley Harrison), the Innkeeper (tenor Adam Luther), his Wife (soprano Charlotte Siegel) the Priest (bass-baritone Giles Tomkins) and the Poacher (bass-baritone Alex Halliday). Except for Purves and Halliday, all the other singers have a role as an insect or an animal as well.
The vixen of the title is sung by the luscious-voiced Jane Archibald, while her love the Fox is sung by the lovely-voiced mezzo-soprano Ema Nikolovska. The singers as humans or humans and animals or insects do excellent vocal work at times under some constraints with the necessary costumes. There are no slackers in the cast.
Janacek based his libretto on the comic strip fairy tales of Rudolf Tesnohlidek which were of course in Czech. The COC production is sung in Czech with the attendant difficulty of learning a language that may be foreign to most singers. The COC to its credit decided to have it sung in Czech unlike other productions that use English translations. Bravo COC.
This is not a pleasant fairy tale where everyone lives happily ever after. The vixen is mistreated by the Forester’s wife and it kills their hens. In the forest, the vixen dislodges the Badger and there is revolutionary talk that is closer to George Orwell’s Animal Farm than to the Grimm Brothers.
On the human side, the men talk of love and marriage at the inn but director Jamie Manton has them sitting at a distance from each other facing the audience. Would it not be better if they were sitting at a table perhaps playing cards?
The Cunning Little Vixen contains some beautiful orchestral music, is an opera and has enough dance requirement to require ballet dancers. It strikes me as a work that could easily be converted into a ballet. The COC production does make an attempt at dance, especially with the gorgeous hens in their white gowns but the ballet requirements are almost totally ignored. Too bad but the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and Chorus and the Canadian Children’s Opera Company under Johannes Debus deserve huge credit for their performances.
The set by Tom Scutt feature some tall, moveable cabinets and unrealistic scenes. The costumes also by Scutt need to help us identify the insects and the animals and there is only so much one can do and he did a good job. He avoided the cutesy Disney look and that was fine with us.
I sat beside a young man who had purchased a ticket at a good price because he is under thirty. He told me that his favorite opera is Madama Butterly and asked me if The Cunning Little Vixen is like that. I told him it is not like that but it has a lot of different elements that made it worth seeing. I hope he agreed with me after the performance.
The Cunning Little Vixen by Leos Janacek is being performed eight times on various dates until February 16, 2024, at the Fours Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario.

February 8, 2024
Cultural - Κριτική Καλών Τεχνών

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