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UNITED KINGDOM: BIRMINGHAM.

Conductors and pianists from outside the Czech region often have difficulty with Janacek's musical language, however much they like the sounds he produces with it. There are two basic 'outsider' approaches: the first is to perform him like Schumann, which risks losing the tautness of the rhythms. The second is to treat him as a sort of cross between Stravinsky and Bartok, rapping out the accents but emphasising physicality at the expense of tenderness.

When one hears an interpreter utterly steeped in the idiom, one realises how inadequately Janacek is served by either of these approaches. Tomas Hanus, who conducted The Cunning Litde Vixen for Welsh National Opera, is just such an interpreter, and he invested every bar of the score with communicative understanding. Each phrase, whether a sweeping statement or a countermelody deep in the texture, was given clear expressive purpose. Every detail had its place and its function, and all came together in a unified entity that teemed with life. There could not be a more persuasive demonstration of how Janacek conjures up a complete ecosystem in vocal and orchestral terms. Praise must, of course, be given to the WNO Orchestra with its particularly fine woodwind soloists and glowing horn section.

Happily, Hanus's reading of the opera had the cast and production it deserved. David Pountney's staging seems just as fresh and captivating as it must have been when first seen in 1980 (I saw this revival in Birmingham on Nov. 7th). It is full of intelligence and imagination put entirely at the service of the work. Pountney has never lacked a command of stage effect, nor a feeling for the dramatic rhythm laid out by the composer. Here, he matches perfectly the opera's delicate balancing act in using gentle anthropomorphism to awaken human understanding of the realities of the natural world. In that aspect, as in all others, the production is at one with Stuart Hopps's choreography and Maria Bjornson's designs.

The Vixen was played with winning and unfailing vivaciousness by the Northern Ireland-born Aoife Miskelly. The brightness of her tone sparkled without ever becoming edgy, and encompassed a wealth of expression, while her large eyes seemed able to make contact with everyone in the audience. When she was joined by Canadian mezzo Lucia Cervoni (see profile p. 10) as her spouse, Fox, the generous richness of Cervoni's voice and the shapeliness of her phrasing made a very pleasing contrast and complement to Miskelly's gleaming soprano.

The Austrian Claudio Otelli, an impressive actor as well as a stalwart baritone, gave a fully-rounded portrait of the Forester as a humane and patient observer of the human and natural world. In a predominantly young cast, the Polish baritone Wojtek Gierlach portrayed a nicely bibulous and pompous Parson without exaggerating for comic effect; his drinking partner the Schoolmaster was played with similarly precise judgement by Peter Van Hulle, capturing the character's poignancy beneath the amusingly fussy exterior. There was also a virile and vigorous Harasta (the poacher) from David Stout.

One could not find a weak link anywhere in the cast, with telling cameos from Kezia Bienek as the Forester's redoubtable wife, Helen Greenaway as the lugubriously randy Dog, or Joseph Doody singing with incisive accuracy as the Mosquito. The immediate, positive impression created by the attractive vocal individuality of Laurence Cole in the brief role of Badger showed how carefully and effectively the entire production had been cast. Praise should therefore be given to the sensitive chorus, to all the minor roles, and to the dancers and children that contributed so much to the evening.

If I have been reluctant to pick out details in the production--parasols that become flowers, effective use of a split stage, slaughtered hens that come back to life when their scene is over to reassure the young and the sensitive in the audience--then that is because every component is at the service of the whole. If any word sums up this production it is integrity, in all senses. But that should not be taken to imply an inappropriate formality. This show was fun, it was affectionate, and it was bubbling with energy. And, finally, and in large measure thanks to Tomas Hanus's presence on the rostrum, it struck a deep and inspiring resonance.
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Author:David, Brian
Publication:Opera Canada
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 22, 2019
Words:709
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