The Cunning Little Vixen
Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music,
Victoria University of Wellington
Sunday 30 July 2017, Hannah Playhouse, Wellington
Music: Leoš Janáček
The libretto was adapted by the composer from a serialized novella
by Rudolf Těsnohlídek and Stanislav Lolek
Director: Jon Hunter
Conductor: Kenneth Young
A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs
Pasquale Orchard … Sharp-Ears the Vixen
Alexandra Gandionco … Gold-Spur the Fox
Joe Haddow … Forester (Gamekeeper)
Sally Haywood … Forester’s Wife / Mrs Páskova
Daniel Sun … Schoolmaster
Nino Raphael … Badger / Priest
Will King … Poacher (Harašta)
Garth Norman … Dog / Pásek
Eleanor McGechie … Rooster
Emma Cronshaw Hunt … Crested Hen / Jay
Elizabeth Harré … Woodpecker
Alexandra Woodhouse Appleby … Grasshopper / Frantík
Sinéad Keane … Frog / Pepík
Jessie Rosewarne … Cricket / Owl
Jessica Karauria … Mosquito
Beatrix Cariño … Young Vixen
Michaela Cadwgan, Ellis Carrington, Issac Cox, Teresa Shields … Forest Creatures
Nino Raphael … Badger / Priest
accompanied by members from the NZSM Orchestra 2017
Production Designer: Owen McCarthy
Lighting Designer: Glenn Ashworth
Costume Designer: Nephtalim Antoine
Head of Accompanying: Mark Dorrell
Repetiteur: Catherine Norton
Lecturers and Artist Teacher: Dr Margaret Medlyn, Jenny Wollerman, James Clayton, Lisa Harper-Brown, Maaike Christie-Beekman
The short story (tldr) :
A stunning production of 2017 The Cunning Little Vixen by Janáček in 2017 by Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music. The music was sublime, the singing was marvellous and the setting and direction was spot-on.
The long story:
Spare a thought for the educators and the staff at Te Kōkī New Zealand of Music (NZSM).
NZSM sets itself to mount an opera every two years. The staff has to consider the particular assortment of ‘voices’ available: soprano, alto, tenor, bass, mezzo-soprano, baritone – even a counter tenor sometimes. They have to consider the maturity of the voices, the length of the season, and the language that could be required. They have to make sure that the operatic main roles are suitable for the student’s particular voice-types. They have to make sure they can cater for all the senior students at the School. They have to find a suitable venue and make sure that the NZSM orchestra is on board, and can get hold of the music. They have to find directors, lighting and costume designers. And they have to make sure it can be produced with a shoe-string budget.
In the past few years, NZSM have produced some stunning operas: 2009 – Semele by Handel, 2011– A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Britten, 2013 – Il corsaro by Verdi and in 2015, a double bill of Dido and Aeneas by Purcell and L’Enfant et les Sortilèges by Ravel.
And they have done again: a stunning production of 2017 The Cunning Little Vixen by Janáček in 2017. The music was sublime, the singing was marvellous and the setting and direction was spot-on.
The setting was contemporary: the graffiti-ridden, derelict building of an anonymous city. [Maybe it was situated in New Zealand! Despite the fact we have no foxes in NZ, one of the posters was a ripped fragment of a New Zealand Music Month flyer – maybe it was a subtle dig? Or a promotion of what NZSM stands for?] A swinging wall made room for all sorts of action in the scenes and doubled the backstage area too.
The action was contemporary too. For example, when the forest creatures discover the Forester sleeping, they stole his thermos, gun and mobile phone and then proceeded to take posed and grinning ‘selfies’ on his phone. Cute.
The orchestra was reduced for this opera – both for the cramped venue and for the young voices on stage. The orchestra was a ‘character’ in the opera – supporting not accompanying. The score reduction was most successful and the ensemble made a lot of noise for only 18 players. At times, the strings could have a little more body – a little more ‘thickness’ – but I was impressed by Grant Baker’s viola solo at the beginning for Act III channelling Shostakovich! The brass and the oboe were particularly fine. The conducting of Kenneth Young was excellent – clear and concise, and making sure that the orchestra and the singers reinforced each other.
The programme notes were excellent and necessary for anyone unfamiliar for the plot, particularly Margaret Medlyn’s and Jon Hunter’s thoughtful analysis of the approach, sub-plot and the layers in the opera. In fact, it was not so much as a ‘plot’, but ‘cartoon strip’ – vignettes about a vixen called Sharp-Ears. As Margaret Medlyn writes: “While the work is full of satire, wit and moralising, its theme is … endless rebirth according to nature’s self-renewal … and embraces Sharp-Ears and her animal world, seeing in it a purity and truth that they know are missing from the more sophisticated society of humans.” And Jon Hunter writes, quoting David George Haskell: “Because life is a network, there is no ‘nature’ or ‘environment’, seperate and apart from humans. We are part of the community of life…so the human/nature duality … is illusory.” By casting the singers as forest animals and the humans that they encounter, Janáček could speak his truth about the political condition of humanity and the natural world.
At the beginning – the ‘overture’ – the cast came on with fabulous ‘origami’ masks: faceted, white cardboard masks. On cue, they removed these masks, and for most of the rest of the opera, they were essentially human personifications of the forest animals. The costume colours were vibrant and detailed. The humans, however, were lacking in colour – white lab coats reflecting their sterility or barrenness, their insipidness? When the humans were relating to each other, for the Inn scene for example, they were up on another level, removed from the reality of the world’s essence. It was an escape, a false illusion, a fantasy. On the ground level, real things happen.
The production was in English – thank goodness, because I would have to refer the opera as Príhody lišky Bystroušky and I can’t pronounce that!
I am kidding of course. It would be nice to have the Czech language, but I think that would be improbable/impossible for these young singers. Unfortunately, English is a hard language to sing in, and some of the words were, particularly for the females, incomprehensible – but that didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the opera. The lyrics were carried by the emotive music, acting and body language – and my aphasia-related condition means, for me, that words are not so important anyway!
Janáček set the words like normal speech, as opposed to a ‘song’ or ‘aria’ structure with verse and chorus. I think, for the whole opera, their were only two times when the composer set two voices together, which is unusual.
The main voices were marvellous. Sharp-Ears the Vixen, Pasquale Orchard and her lover Alexandra Gandionco as Gold-spur the Fox, were exemplary. Their soprano voices were strong and true, on-pitch and sonorous. Their ‘duo’ in Act II was affecting and moving supported with rhapsodic accompaniment from the orchestra.
The main men were steady and full-voiced too – a rich tone that belies their youth. Nino Raphael as the badger (sans trousers!) and the priest (sans judiciousness) was a delight: a resonant bass voice and the timing of a comic-actor. Will King had a brief role in Act III as the Poacher Harašta, but his voice was mellow and engaging. Joe Haddow as the Forester (as did Pasquale Orchard as the Vixen) carried the opera from first to last. I was most impressed by his voice. It could have more colour in it, and with maturity, I suspect it will develop that way, but he was excellent as the conflicted Gamekeeper, and his tone and range were perfect for the role.
The rest of the cast were creditable: the hens and the fox cubs, the forest creatures and the other humans – a young cast, keen to step out in the limelight.
On reflection, three scenes stand out to me in the myriad moments in this laudable performance: the Rooster and Hens; the discovery of love by the vixen and the fox; and final scene, the Forester’s recollections.
The ‘vignette’-nature of the opera led to a mixture of dramatic styles, and ‘Rooster and Hens’ scenes was hilarious, heinous and horrifying in equal measure. [If you have seen the NZ-film ‘Black Sheep’ you will know what I mean.]
Hilarious: the costuming was perfect – Eleanor McGechie as the Rooster had a ‘virility package’ in her trousers (an internal codpiece) and Emma Cronshaw Hunt as the Crested Hen was a Barbie Doll, ruling the roost, and simpering about her paramour. The hens were bandana-combed factory-girls. Heinous: in the roost the hens were making babies – actually parts of baby dolls, but the political intent was clear. Conservatism can lead to moral decay. Horrifying: the vixen kills all the chickens and the rooster – even hunting the last one aided by the dog (another moral there too – collaboration not involvement!) As Jon Hunter said in the notes: “And foxes do as foxes must.” The music was expressive: the macho mood from the rooster entrance, the complacent clucking and the panicked cackle of the hens, and the franctic shrieks from the orchestra.
When the fox and the vixen (Pasquale Orchard and Alexandra Gandionco ) meet the scene was touching and almost a voyeuristic: I mean that we were exposed the vixen’s internal struggle about the nature of ‘love’. It was personal and poignant. The vixen hesitates, almost shunning the fox, doubting that she could be so loved. Janáček music was evocative and humane (!) and the operatic highlight for me.
The final scene featured the Forester reminiscing about the vixen. Spring has come, and the little fox-cubs are gambolling in the forest … ‘endless rebirth‘. Again, Janáček’s music was lyrical and triumphant, an optimistic rhapsody on the beauty of Life.
An excellent production and well done for EVERYONE involved.
One note for the future: the NZSM operas in the last few years were in the Adam Concert Room, the Memorial Theatre at Victoria University, the Wellington Opera House and the Hannah Playhouse. None of them are ideal for this type of opera. I hope, with the redevelopment of the NZSM at the Town Hall, there will be a move to make a space for this type of operatic performance – like the Ilott Concert Chamber with a proscenium and a backstage. It is desperately needed for the Wellington musical community.