Janacek - Cunning Little Vixen

ONP Bastille, Wednesday October 29 2008

Conductor: Dennis Russell Davies. Production: André Engel. Sets: Nicky Rieti. Costumes: Elizabeth Neumuller. Gamekeeper: Jukka Rasilainen. His wife: Michèle Lagrange. Schoolmaster: David Kuebler. Priest: Roland Bracht. Harašta: Paul Gay. Vixen: Elena Tsallagova. Fox: Hannah Esther Minutillo.

Many people familiar with images of this production (e.g. the massed sunflowers along the disused railway line) must have been surprised to find it billed as "nouvelle," but Gerard Mortier has a habit of claiming that anything revamped for its first outing at the Bastille is new. In this case, it was something of a pint-sized production (orinigally staged in Lyon) in the Bastille's quart (or gallon) pot: André Engel's directing may have been finely detailed and charming in a more intimate setting, and may come across perfectly on DVD should one come out (there were cameras everywhere), but here it was swamped.

So, too, were the voices. The children and second roles were often plain inaudible over the orchestra. The principals were obviously putting a great deal into it, Elena Tsallagova in particular (I could well imagine her in Le Coq d'Or) but even so we strained to hear them. Very frustrating: video extracts on the ONP's website confirmed that we were missing some very good singing. Hannah Esther Mutillo came off best, and made as handsome, proud a fox as Tsallagova made a delightful, seductive vixen.

Dennis Russell Davies' conducting seeemed to me so slow as to verge on the plodding, and restrained in such a way as to suggest whatever the opposite of "milking it for all it's worth" is. And though at least one critic claimed that the Paris Opera orchestra was now Janacek-perfect after so much practice in recent seasons, their playing didn't seem properly joined-up to me: it lacked sweep (reminding me of the very bad old days when they couldn't manage Strauss at all).

Engels' constant letting-down of a cartoon curtain for scene changes added to the disjointed feel of the evening; and overall I was surprised to find myself finding such a short work a touch long, and such a lovely one very nearly boring. So in the end it was one of those productions where the sets and, in this case especially, the costumes were the stars of the show.

The sets were large and simple: the sunflowers along the railway, telegraph poles, sometimes a sort of concrete factory to the left where the gamekeeper lived, the railways under thick snow at the end... The costumes were superb. In this production, the animals were mostly human, but with animal accessories (wings, horns...) and movements: schoolboy flies, the local bourgeoisie as stags, goats, owls and so on... And above all the hens, in blowzy, flowery housecoats, magenta stockings and shoes, clucking and flapping and strutting under the eyes of a rooster proudly displaying his genitals.

This production should come, eventually, to the NY City Opera, and in the meantime it might make a good DVD, but as we already have Hytner's production from the Châtelet, I'm not sure we need it.


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