Janacek was approaching 70 when he composed The Cunning Little Vixen, yet the opera brims with youthful vigour, optimism and music-dramatic innovation. Inspired by a cartoon, his piquant story of Vixen Sharp-Ears’ life and death deploys ballet and animal-suited children in celebration of the cycles of nature.
Charming and witty, it’s a fantasy nonetheless devoid of sentimentality – and therein lies the power of David Pountney’s production: first seen in 1980, it’s arguably Welsh National Opera’s most beloved and enduring triumph, with an underlying message both timeless and urgent at this point of climate and extinction crisis.
Sharp-Ears (the marvellous Aoife Miskelly, beautifully partnered by Lucia Cervoni’s Fox) embodies the irrepressible spirit of nature. By contrast, the Forester, Schoolmaster and Parson (poignant malcontents Claudio Otelli, Peter Van Hulle and Wojtek Gierlach) are beset by cares because, it’s implied, they’ve repressed their animal instincts and lost connection to the cycle. Yet their melancholy is ultimately no match for nature’s renewal, and the Forester’s final epiphany leads him to embrace life.
Sung in Czech, expertly conducted by WNO music director Tomas Hanus, the multiple layers come alive on stage and in pit; expressive speech-melodies are entwined with high-wire violins, cackling oboe and barking contrabassoon.
The instruments reflect a wonderful bevy of dancing dragonflies, gossiping songbirds, frolicking fox cubs, a horny dog, ill-tempered badger and more. The clucking hens poke hilarious fun at curmudgeons upset by “rabid feminism” and “spreading socialism”. All are superb, but it’s the tumbling children among them that most catch the breath.