Surrey Opera at the Harlequin Theatre, Redhill, February 14
Elizabeth Millard in Opera Magazine, April 2003
The old adage of ‘never work with children or animals’ was utterly refuted in Surrey Opera’s Cunning Little Vixen. From the opening, the children and most of their adult counterparts were captivating. The designer (Roy Bell) set the wood as a posh children’s playground that wouldn’t look out of place in a Ground Force makeover, and was thoroughly successful.
There were many notable performances. After a somewhat timid and lacklustre Act 1, the Forester of Adrian Powter grew over the course of the opera, producing in Act 3 a vocal quality full of reflection and evocation of change. Rachel Chapman (Vixen) was by far the most exciting performer of the evening; she combined effortless flirtation with vocal agility and real comedic talent. A particular high point was her Act 2 duet with the Fox, where she showed power and lyricism, her voice easily filling the auditorium without appearing to dominate.
The Fox (Carola Darwin) was less impressive: at first the problem seemed to be one of power, but later it became apparent that it was her shrillness of tone that prevented a really satisfying performance. Strong support for the Forester came in the form of Alistair Merry’s Harašta, and Alan Rankin Crooks had the right startled tone as the drunken Schoolmaster. Rankin Crooks, along with his brood of hens, provided one of the best comic moments of the evening – imagine, if you will , Basil Fawlty shepherding hens, attired in hard hats complete with red marigolds.
The producer, William Relton, deserves a medal simply for co-ordinating the various roles of the children, all of whom performed well. Conducted by Jonathan Butcher, the orchestra was convincing, especially in Act 3 where it sounded mellow – the aspect of the music that suited these particular forces (one player to a part) best. Their performance had a really polished feel in many areas, with lighting, costume and general design well thought out. In some areas stronger singers were needed, but overall Surrey Opera gave a highly entertaining realisation of the Vixen.
Angela Goodall in Words and Music, April 2003
It would be easy to run out of superlatives for this enchanting production. The set, a children’s playground overgrown with plants, was most attractive and reflected the relationship between nature and human-beings that is so central to the story.
Costumes were beautiful, for the insects, lovely iridescent outfits, and highly original in the case of the Hens, dressed in white dungaree shorts, yellow leggings, white wellies and hard hats with eyes and beaks, they looked very much the workers. Their outfits contributed greatly to the hilarious egg-laying scene which they clearly enjoyed performing.
The characters were all strongly cast and sung. The Vixen herself (Rebecca Bottone) gave an engaging, athletic performance of great charm, which made the moment of her death all the more moving. Fox (Carola Darwin) made a convincing and handsome male. I would have liked a little more verbal clarity from her but that was a minor issue in such a great portrayal. The humans, Forester (Paul Carey Jones), Parson (Keel Watson), and Schoolmaster (Alan Rankin Crooks) were excellent as one would expect from such accomplished singers.
Janacek’s score was lovingly played and conducted by Jonathan Butcher and the orchestra, who achieved the difficult task of balancing the rich and powerful orchestration with the needs of the singers, including children with small voices. The children gave natural and endearing performances as the smaller animals and the whole production was by far the best thing I have seen from Surrey Opera, well up to national professional standards.
Congratulations to Surrey Opera on a courageous choice, which was cheered loudly by a very appreciative, but far from full, audience. Where were the rest? Are they afraid of Janacek? Apart from a recent (perhaps too recent) production at Covent Garden, this opera is rarely performed. What a pity to miss such a lovely production.
Comments from Simon Bonsor
I went to see the Surrey Opera production of the Cunning Little Vixen last night at The Harlequin Theatre in Redhill: I have not been to any of the previous productions, but will definitely be attending in future. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Being involved in the theatre myself, I know how many people it takes to put on a show - not just the actors or singers - and I know the hard work required to make it look effortless! I’m sure that the Cunning Little Vixen is not necessarily an easy piece to stage. If it’s not done with 100% conviction, it could come across as insufferable arch and twee. No danger of that here.
What impressed me the most was the professionalism of everyone in the opera, even down to the youngest children. Everyone acted beautifully. Though it’s probably invidious to point out an individual from the ‘chorus’, one particular bit of acting stands as an example of your director’s eye for detail: the child who played the Hare - and who must have been one of the very youngest - did his or her part extremely well. Caught by the vixen, the hare struggles like mad in the clutch of the Fox, and then goes limp. The ‘body’ has to remain lying on stage for more than half an hour and there was not the slightest movement. All the ‘chorus’ cast showed the same commitment. I loved the rooster and the hens!
The principals were very good - especially the Forester. The Vixen had the requisite sassy foxy character, and once again acting and singing were of a high calibre. The characters were well-defined in both singing and acting, which is important in this opera. The stage design was excellent, and scene changing handled with speed - something that I always bang on about when I’m directing! I didn’t miss a larger orchestra, as Jonathan Dove’s arrangement worked extremely well, and the musicians, though small in number, went to town with some full-blooded playing when required. The instrumental detail was always clear and precise. Congratulations to all concerned.