BWW Review: THE CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN, Arcola TheatreFor an art form often deemed the most exclusive of all (and that old saw was in the media again this week concerning Kensington and Chelsea Council's arts funding priorities), operas often have roots in mass entertainment products. An example is Leos Janacek's much performed The Cunning Little Vixen, the libretto of which was inspired by a popular newspaper cartoon strip and the music by the folk rhythms and melodies of Mitteleuropa. But, of course, there's much more going on than that.

Guido Martin-Brandis goes back nearly a century to Janacek's original intentions to incorporate mime and dance with the voices and (just about) recreate the Czech's pastoral idyll in less than sylvan Dalston. His team of singers. actors and dancers provide a compelling spectacle in Venetian style masks with low cost, but effective, puppets and, always, the swirling, looping, snapping music underpinning a key theme of the work - that the countryside, as much as the urban centres which had been through one world war and already revving up for a second, are sites of struggle, power and violence.

The plot - and it sounds a bit like George RR Martin does Pogles' Wood - concerns the life and death of a vixen. The fox, well up the rural food chain, is, as ever, clever and ruthless (but not as high up, nor as clever, nor as ruthless as the vixen's nemesis - mankind). Amongst the trees, there's the gamekeeper who tries to tame her, the fox who seduces her, marries her and gives her cubs, a drunken, lovelorn school teacher and a priest. And the poacher who shoots her.

If that sounds like a cross-section of life in the forest, it is, yet amidst all that life, there is death - the vixen kills a few chickens, evicts a blameless badger to steal a home and herself dies in most unDisney-like fashion, but there's birth too, as the (oft forgotten in the 21st century) truth that life requires death is underlined.

Alison Rose's Vixen is as sharp as her Sharp-Ears nickname, the soprano filling the space with that unique thrill of operatic singing heard up close and personal. Oliver Gibbs' paternalistic (if slightly creepy - at the time he wrote the opera, Janacek was infatuated with a woman half his age) Forrester holds the themes together and Ashley Mercer menaces as Harasta the poacher. Props too for the rest of the ensemble, multi-rolling as animals and humans.

The mainly young cast and creatives pour heart and soul into the work and, on a low budget that inevitably means that some elements are a little underpowered, even for a chamber arrangement, produce the goods, not least from the wonderful band led by Oliver Till. This production is another feather in the cap for the Arcola's Grimeborn Festival, giving opportunities to see opera anew - on both sides of the fourth wall.

The Cunning Little Vixen is at the Arcola Theatre until 4 August, part of the Grimeborn Festival.

Photo Robert Workman.

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