Spoiler alert. The last words in Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen come from a child playing a frog. The story has come full circle — there was a frog near the start of Act One, and naturally you assume it’s the same one. But no: ‘That wasn’t me. That was my grandaddy. He used to tell me about you.’ It’s the final sad-sweet sting; the orchestra swells and the curtain falls. Perfection. Or so Janacek thought, anyway: ‘To end with the frog is impossible,’ insisted his German translator Max Brod — the same well-meaning meddler who either rescued or (according to taste) wrecked Kafka. Brod wanted a final hymn to nature from the central human character, the Forester. You know, a proper peroration. Janacek, thankfully, put him straight back in his box.
In fairness, Brod probably never heard the final scene of the Vixen conducted the way Martyn Brabbins conducted it, in this first performance of Jamie Manton’s new production (his first at the Coliseum) for English National Opera. Brabbins’s last show for ENO was The Valkyrie and some of Wotan’s magic must have flooded over into the Moravian forests, because this felt redemptive: the curtain falling slowly as the timpani pounded and the whole orchestra surged up from the basses, ringing with colour. There was no way a finish like that wasn’t going to get an ovation, but throughout, Brabbins had found both the mystery and the raw-toothed vitality in Janacek’s score, while tearing at the heart with an insistence that made Puccini seem like an amateur.
Manton’s production, meanwhile, constructs its world from the ground up. At first, the spirits sink — another grungy black-box updating, you think, as the curtain rises on banks of backstage equipment. Stick with it, though. This a fantasy, after all; an opera created from a newspaper cartoon strip. Manton and his designer Tom Scutt seem to have taken their visual cues from those surreal, faintly terrifying Eastern European animated shorts that used to plug holes in the Channel 4 schedules back in the 1980s. The Dog (Claire Barnett-Jones) resembles a sentient sofa. Harasta the poacher (Ossian Huskinson) wears an upholstered muscle-shirt, there are dancing mushrooms and silent, gnomish extras troop about in black, like refugees from Moominland.
Each one has a stopwatch, and time swiftly emerges as the central theme of Manton’s staging, with illustrated fabric strips unscrolling from bottom to top of the stage: simultaneously forest trees, and lifelines for the individual characters. That makes it sound ponderous, but by Act Two you’re already feeling a pang as each strip runs its course and tumbles to the floor. And there’s a lot of living going on in the foreground, with Sally Matthews as an agile, unsentimental Vixen. Her voice has a keen, bright edge; this vixen can certainly bite, and she makes an athletic counterpart to Lester Lynch’s vigorous, oak-toned Forester — a singer who can spin a yearning phrase with unforced sincerity.
The two veterans Alan Oke and Clive Bayley are a touching bit of casting as the Schoolmaster and Priest respectively, each finding a wry humanity amid some of Manton and Scutt’s wackier design decisions. It’s wonderful, too, to hear Pumeza Matshikiza (the Fox) wrap her gorgeous soprano around Matthews’s in their all-too-brief love scenes. (By the time they get married, the whole company is bouncing up and down with glee.) Manton’s Vixen fumbles a few corners — even feminist foxes slaughter chickens, don’t they? — but it’s full of playful detail and the fundamentals ring true. For a main stage debut, it’s a striking achievement, and if I’ve dwelled on the production at the expense of the performances, that’s because I’ve a suspicion that this staging might become an ENO staple. It deserves to.
There was more Slavic anarchy over at the Royal Festival Hall, where Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra played two nights of Stravinsky. I caught Jeu de Cartes and the Violin Concerto, with Patricia Kopatchinskaja as soloist — probably the only living violinist capable of upstaging a team like this. In truth, she played Stravinsky’s Concerto the way it’s clearly always been waiting to be played, and invited Fischer and his super-orchestra to share the fun.
So Fischer repositioned the brass section in front of the strings, all the better to blow raspberries as Kopatchinskaja — barefoot and wearing what appeared to be a costume from the Ballets Russes — skipped and darted around her instrument, scraping smoky, caramelised sounds from its lower strings and flashing conspiratorial glances at the audience as she and the BFO’s woodwinds played ping-pong with Stravinsky’s arch little melodies. She’s inimitable, Fischer was unflappable and if I could hear only one bassoonist for the rest of my life, it’d be Bence Boganyi of the Budapest Festival Orchestra.