Tuesday, February 22, 2022

The Coliseum, London

Guest Reviewer, Peter Reed

The first thing you’re immediately aware of in Jamie Manton’s new production of Janáček’s life-and-death
opera is just how vast the Coliseum stage is. True, Tom Scutt’s designs fill the predominantly black space with a lot of stuff, primarily huge wooden cases on wheels trundled around to create enclosures rather than sets, and tidy piles of tree-trunks, noting that this Forester’s trade is forest clearance – while Lucy Carter’s lighting is generally as hard and vital as the natural world of the forest Janáček set out to reproduce, inspired by the Vixen’s adventures published and illustrated in his daily paper (a long way from Rupert Bear’s escapades in the Daily Express). Right at the back of the stage is a small door, with an otherworldly light beckoning on the other side.

It’s drab, despoiled and neutral, but it’s redeemed by the main design feature, a huge bolt of material that unrolls
from ceiling to stage floor throughout the opera, roughly drawn with a graffiti-like collage of the passing of
time, the seasons, trees, weather, with a simple, transcendent and moving moment at the end, which, briefly,
clinched Janáček’s depiction of the basics of life, in an opera in which the Vixen heroine is summarily shot dead
and life, and the opera, just gets on without her. What else can it do?

The rest of the design is a costume parade, and here Tom Scutt has triumphed – squadrons of hens in wedding
dresses, fox cubs and ‘timekeepers’ (who are the stagehands), a magnificent King Cock (a scene-stealing cameo
from John Findon), a colossally obese dog (Claire Barnett-Jones, excellent), a family of fly agaric mushrooms
(poisonous and hallucinatory), plus insects, birds, a frog and a badger. The Forester and Vixen appear separately
as children, adolescents and adults, while all three stages of the Dragonfly are presented together, conflating its
short life. Imaginations have run riot, very much to the benefit of the Vixen and Fox’s wedding scene, and while
there is no dance, all the movement (directed by Jenny Ogilvie) is closely observed.

That leaves the humans, who of all the creatures here, know that they will die – which is where melancholy
at the transience of life took hold. Alan Oke’s Schoolmaster and Clive Bayley’s Priest, both world-weary,
disappointed and covered in grey dust, worship Terynka, the unseen local femme fatale, from afar. We learn that
she is swept up by Ossian Huskinson’s Harašta the Poacher, a husky god’s gift to womankind, brilliantly sung,
acted and sent up – there was a staging where both Terynka and the Vixen were presented together as one object
of uncontrollable desire, which made the Vixen being shot by the Poacher all the more potent.

Lester Lynch had a natural big presence as the Forester, the one human who gets the pragmatic, transactional
nature of the animal world, and, after all the stage busyness, his paean to nature brought the opera to a glorious,
focused close. Pumeza Matshikiza swaggered and sang marvellously as the Fox. Sally Matthews brought a
brisk, brightly sung vitality to the Vixen, and very funny in her feminist duplicity with the hens. Janáček’s score
is so full of wonder and lyricism, it can take any amount of contrasting astringency. Conducted by ENO’s music
director Martyn Brabbins with plenty of characterful playing from the ENO Orchestra, there were times when it
stayed on one emotional level.

It is, though, a great, almost over-generous show. It did cross my mind that the production might go voguishly
overboard on green and climate change issues. They are sort of there, but subtly folded in by Manton.
And after the opening night was stormed off, there are only four more performances.


Martyn Brabbins conducts the premiere recording of Havergal Brian’s Faust for Dutton Epoch.