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Review: THE CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN, Opera Holland Park

Streetwise and sassy modern take on Janacek’s forest tale

Review: THE CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN, Opera Holland Park

Review: THE CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN, Opera Holland Park Urban dwellers know that a fox swaggering the streets like she owns them is nothing unusual these days. The merging of town and country, and the question of whether the fox is invading human territory (or is it the other way round with humans claiming zones that really belong to foxes?) are particularly relevant themes in Opera Holland Park's home site in verdant and semi-feral parkland.

With pigeons perched on the lighting rig, Holland Park peacocks strutting their stuff and a mouse skittering under our table in the Ensemble Bar, the natural world is, well, natural here. I wouldn't be surprised if the park's resident foxes, concealed in the bushes, are having the last laugh and waving their paws jauntily along to the score.

In this version of Leos Janacek's three-act opera, a cut-down version by Jonathan Dove and a cheeky and entertaining update of Norman Tucker's English translation, there's much to examine in the philosophical intersection of man and beast. Up-to-date references to the denizen Holland Park fowl ("If it weren't for the peacocks a man could fall asleep in a twinkling"), and the Forester trying to ensnare the bushy-tailed Vixen Sharp Ears with coffee and a sandwich in a Pret a Manger bag connects the audience to the story in a new and amusing way. The latter provides an in-joke for local residents, as Pret is a relatively new addition to the row of shops on Holland Park Avenue.

Janacek's fable sees the Forester (a nuanced performance by Grant Doyle) capturing young Vixen Sharp Ears (played feistily by coloratura soprano Jennifer France) and keeping her as the family pet, only to lose her when she finds freedom - and love - with The Fox (soprano Julia Sporsen, who is particularly strong in the second act's love duet).

Meanwhile, the Poacher (luxuriant bass-baritone Ashley Riches stepped in on the night of this review - and nailed it) becomes engaged to flame-haired Terynka (a clever mirrored performance by France), upsetting the Schoolmaster (thoughtfully portrayed by Charne Rochford). Explorations of loneliness and the desire to connect are conveyed well by the cast - and couldn't be timelier in the pandemic era.

Less is more in director Stephen Barlow's dynamic and spirited production, which opens with children energetically playing animals and insects, thundering through the audience and waving brightly hued windsock streamer kites. Sarita Piotrowski should receive special mention for generating vigorous, energetic movement, so that the company appears to be larger than it is.

Equally, a stripped-down but enthusiastic City of London Sinfonia and Opera Holland Park Chorus, led by lively conductor Jessica Cottis, perform with gusto. Especially compelling is Deborah Davis on flute and piccolo, the folksy addition of an accordion, and bold bassoon and horns.

Andrew D Edwards offers uplifting, colourful and simple design with a recycling premise. A versatile green recycling bin takes centre stage - literally - transmuting into a bar with a real tap in the public inn, a field of flowers and Vixen's den. Council workers in green coveralls and blue plastic-gloved chickens dressed as low-paid cleaners also hit the contemporary spot.

In fact, there are witty costumes and props throughout: think balloons for hens' eggs, water pistols, hi-vis jackets, woolly socks, orange leggings for Vixen and one lone sunflower on a patch of green to represent a warmer spell. Meticulous lighting by Rory Beaton takes us through the cycles of nature, illuminating the final scene with a glorious sunset which offers hope for the future.

Facing a fox on the mean streets of the Royal Borough and leaving out the green recycling bin on Mondays and Thursdays will never be the same, and will surely rekindle memories of this joyous evening at Opera Holland Park. And so will the thought that life goes on in a world where humans and animals can somehow find a way to rub along together.

The 2021 season continues until August. For more information contact

Photo credit: Ali Wright

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