Storms blew away last week’s planned premiere of English National Opera’s new version of Janáček’s 1924 hymn to the cycles of the living world. The opening was quickly rescheduled for Sunday afternoon, but it was a useful reminder that our coexistence in nature has a pitiless side, as well as the pantheistic charge that fires Janáček’s ecstatic score.
Jamie Manton’s busy staging is fuelled by anguish not sentiment. The composer set his opera in a Moravian forest, where a woodman captures a young vixen, who escapes back to the wild to raise a brood of cubs, only to fall victim to a hunter from the village. But Tom Scutt’s designs, fiercely lit by Lucy Carter, give us instead a deforested landscape, blasted by logging, in which the rhythms of life play out against a backdrop scroll that unwinds a visual representation of the story to reveal a chillingly blank sheet at the close.
All the same, there is abundance of colourful life on stage too, with all the insects, birds, mushrooms and animals that make any staging of Janáček’s opera, including this one, by turns a delight and a risk. Jenny Ogilvie’s movement direction gets laughs as well as poignancy from a menagerie in which Joy Constantinides’s dragonfly, Clare Barnett-Jones’s dog, John Findon’s cockerel and Robert Berry-Roe’s frog all make their mark. There are fox cubs and hens in profusion, while hooded “timekeepers” shift the scenery and provide a constant reminder of the opera’s dark side.
Martyn Brabbins conducts industriously but in a rather generalised sweep. Sally Matthews brings vocal allure to the Vixen that enables her to convey the opera’s transcendent qualities. She is well matched by the brighter soprano of Pumeza Matshikiza’s Fox. Lester Lynch’s Forester is richly toned and sympathetic in his getting of wisdom, but articulation, especially important in this opera, is not a strong point for any of them. Ossian Huskinson, who makes an impressive impact as the poacher Harašta is, by contrast, exemplarily clear. So are the experienced pairing of Alan Oke and Clive Bayley, who capture the important dramatic counterpoint of the unfulfilled lives of the village schoolmaster and priest.