NIMBY Opera triumph in Janáček opera

The Cunning Little Vixen by Janáček: NIMBY Opera

Musical Director :Justus Rozemond; Director : Jacqueline Coats;  Kate Lineham, Matthew Landreth, Edmund Hintz, Daniel O’Connor, Barbara Paterson, Stuart Coats,
Chorus/Dancers: Barbara Graham, Felicity Smity, Megan Corby, Frances Moore, Rachel Day, Natalie Hona. Instrumentalists: Claire McFarlane, Margaret Guldborg, Tui Clark, Dillon Mayhew, Catherine Norton

Salvation Army Citadel, Vivian St., Wellington

Friday 27 March  2009

This was my first experience of NIMBY Opera, so I didn’t really know what to expect regarding the company’s capabilities. I’d read about their previous productions – Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, and Lyell Cresswell’s Good Angel, Bad Angel, both of which had garnered some excellent reviews. Nevertheless, considering the size of the venue for Vixen it seemed as though a compromised operatic experience would be the order of the day, however skillfully presented and performed – no full orchestra, for one, no operatic stage, curtain or proscenium arch, in fact almost none of the things that one associates with ‘opera performance’ atmosphere, or at least with things on the normal scale of opera performance.

In the event, nearly all of these potential shortcomings were transformed into virtues, with their own valid operatic/theatrical qualities. It’s true that a stage, a curtain, and a dividing orchestra pit can help create a magical, far-away-land ‘happening-in-a-dream’ ambience if the performances are sufficiently involving – but one can also feel ‘distanced’ by those physical spaces, far removed from the characters and their world, the audience on the outside looking in, as it were. Here, there was no need to look in, because it was happening all around and close at hand. The dimensions of the Salvation Army Citadel auditorium gave the production an intimacy that couldn’t have been easily reproduced in a normal opera house. And of course the opera eminently suited this close-at-hand, intimate setting, with the use of English words enhancing our enjoyment (most of the time!).

In short, here was an operatic experience that I, for one, enjoyed to the full away from many of the normal operatic structures and conventions. I think it was partly this sense of performers ‘stepping out’ from conventional presentation scenarios which helped give the production some of its power and engagement.

I thought I would lament the substitution of a full band with a small ensemble, because Janáček writes so vividly and pungently for orchestra, vesting each scene with very specific ambiences and textures with the help of his orchestration. It’s a tribute to the skill of the music director, Justus Rozemond, that, once the first pricklings of getting used to a smaller scale of sound were over, I hardly missed the full orchestra – obviously something to do with the sounds matching the intimacy of the theatrical situation, but also suggesting that the arrangement managed to convey Janáček’s thematic and rhythmic essences, and sufficient colour to suggest the worlds of imagination the composer wanted us to enter. Again, there was a sense of something happening so closely at hand that one felt physically caught up with it – not exactly Wagner’s concept of the ‘womb of Gaia’, but something quite different, elemental in a completely different way.

The story of the opera is on an intimate rather than a grand scale – a mischievous young fox is kidnapped from her forest home as a cub and taken to the world of the humans. Vixen Sharp-ears, however, is not a fox to be trifled with – she escapes, and proceeds to turn both the local Forester’s life, and the rest of the woods upside-down. It’s a story with a lot of humour, a lot of action, and with some twists, some of which Janáček himself incorporated into the original source-story. This was from a novel by Rudolf Těsnohlídek that was serialized in a Brno daily newspaper, and was brought to Janáček’s attention, as legend would have it, by his housekeeper, whom he caught reading the paper and laughing to herself at the vixen’s adventures.

Janáček made several changes, the most radical of which was introducing into the story the death of the vixen, shot by a poacher. He justified the story-change by saying he wanted to emphasise the cyclical nature of things – ‘death follows life – life follows death’, a premise which of course changes the whole opera from a light-hearted children’s tale into a serious matter involving death. The production emphasizes the cyclical nature of things by depicting the original Vixen, played by Kate Lineham, entering at the end as one of her own cubs – so life is renewed in a heart-warming way.

One of the traditional truisms regarding opera is that performers are there to sing, not to act. There have been numerous instances in the past of famous operatic performers with stunning voices behaving like lumps of lead on stage – I’m sure that was largely because in earlier times the conductor ruled the roost in the opera houses, and the stage directors largely did what they were told and tried not to get in the way, so that everything became subservient to the music. We’ve seen the balance of power shift quite dramatically in those terms – some would say far too much, considering the wackiness and inappropriateness of some opera directors’ conceptions.

But one of the good things resulting from this emphasis on stage production is that singers are now expected to be able to act – and this was one of the great strengths of the present production. Everybody looked, moved and sang completely and utterly in character – a tribute to Jacqueline Coats, the director, Sacha Copland the choreographer, costume designer Rachel More, and of course to the performers themselves. And we were so close that if there had been any weaknesses or discrepancies they would have been uncomfortably obvious.

As the Vixen, Kate Lineham gave what I thought was an extraordinary performance, quite all-encompassing, with acting and movement that fully matched the quality of her vocal performance. She was a Vixen who, despite her sharpish temperament and occasionally deadly intent, warmed our hearts at other times with her sense of fun and her vulnerability. Her interaction with Fox Goldenstripe, portrayed with a fine show of gallantry by Barbara Paterson, was a highlight of the production, both singers playing into each others hands, or should one say, paws! The ‘teenage love’ antics of their first meeting delighted the audience, and was marred only by some over-loud instrumental playing, which circumstance I’ll return to later.

Matthew Landreth as the Forrester gave a strong and well-focused, entirely believable ‘character’ performance, bringing out both the robustness as well as the philosophical side of the character. It was a pity he wasn’t placed further forward for his final aria, so we could have ‘connected’ with his love of the natural world more readily at that point. On the other side of the same fence was the Poacher, played by Stuart Coats (he also took the smaller part of the Innkeeper), whose voice made, for me, the strongest impression of the evening amongst the men – in many ways the ‘alter ego’ of the Forrester, with both a rugged and a sentimental side to his character, singing his folksong-like serenades to his absent sweetheart. Another versatile performer was tenor Edmund Hintz, who bounced between the gravitas of the schoolteacher and the cartoonish machoism of the rooster with relish, his farmyard antics vividly choreographed, and complete with evocative animal noises.

The chorus were required to play a number of roles, from feathered cockerel-cohorts and their offspring, to their enemies, the foxes and their cubs, as well as a host of other animals and human beings. Thanks to on-the-spot choreography, vivid costuming and great singing and acting, they achieved wonders of characterisation with each scene, bringing out the earthiness and comedy of it all, especially during the Vixen’s wedding when there were cries of “Halleluiah!” from all parts of the auditorium.

As I’ve said, I thought the arrangement of the original score for five players by musical director Justus Rozemond was an outstanding piece of work, skillfully and sensitively done. Obviously it needed to be played well to work as it did, and by-and-large the work of the musicians was first-class, with only a tendency to play too loudly detracting from the effect of Janáček’s subtle colourings, and obscuring some of the vocal lines from the singers. The light and shade of the original score was missed at such times, as was the amplitude asked for by the composer at the beginning of Act Three, where the original’s harshness and power just doesn’t come across with a small ensemble.

Small caveats, these, set against one’s warm-hearted enjoyment of the whole. NIMBY Opera can be justly proud of what the Vixen was able to achieve, a welcome alternative view to set against one’s usual preconceptions concerning opera and its production.

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