Close-up Janáček an operatic delight from NZSM

JANÁČEK – The Cunning Little Vixen (opera)
presented by Te Koki New Zealand School of Music
Victoria University of Wellington

Sharp-Ears, the Vixen: Pasquale Orchard / Forrester: Joe Haddow
Forrester’s Wife: Sally Haywood / Schoolmaster: Daniel Sun
Priest, Badger: Nino Raphael / Gold-Spur, the Fox: Alexandra Gandionco
Poacher: Will King / Dog, Pasek: Garth Norman
Rooster: Eleanor McGechie /Crested Hen / Jay: Emma Cronshaw Hunt
Woodpecker: Elizabeth Harré /Grasshopper / Frantik: Alexandra Woodhouse Appleby
Frog, Pepik: Sinéad Keane / Cricket, Owl: Jessie Rosewarne
Mosquito: Jessica Karauria / Young Vixen: Beatrix Cariño
Forest Creatures: Micaela Cadwgan, Ellis Carrington, Isaac Cox, Teresa Shields

New Zealand School of Music Orchestra: Players – Claudia Tarrant-Matthews (leader),
Sophie Tarrant-Matthews, Grant Baker, Lavinnia Rae, Jandee Song, Anna Prasannan, Annabel Lovatt, Harim Oh, Breanna Abbott, Shadley Van Wyk, Vivien Reid, Toby Pringle, Andrew Yorkstone, Dominic Jacquemard, Hannah Neman, Andrew Atkins, Gabriela Glapska
Kenneth Young (conductor)
Director – Jon Hunter
Designer – Owen McCarthy
Lighting – Glenn Ashworth
Costumes – Nephtalim Antoine
Hannah Playhouse, Wellington,

Friday 28th July, 2017


It wasn’t until he was almost fifty that Moravian composer Leoš Janáček began to show the world what he could really do, with the appearance of the first of his operas, Jenufa, in Brno in 1904. Up to that time a lot of his musical activities were devoted to researches into folk music, determined as he was to create from Moravian and other strains of Slavonic folk music a properly original, modern musical style.

Jenufa’s subsequent success at Prague in 1916 was a breakthrough for the composer, leading to performances in both Austria and Germany and later, as far afield as New York in 1924. After Jenufa’s success came others – Kata Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen, The Macropolous Case and The House of the Dead, all of which are now considered part of “the standard operatic repertoire”.

Perhaps the most approachable of the more established works, even given its own brand of unconventionality, is The Cunning Little Vixen, written by the composer from a serialised version of a novel by Rudolf Tesnohlídek which appeared in Brno’s local newspaper in 1920, along with line drawings by artist Stanislav Lolek. Both story and illustrations seemed to have completely enthralled Janáček, who toyed at first with the idea of an opera-ballet, and then as a kind of pantomime, as he crafted his scenario. He did, in the process, extend the original story’s scheme to include the Vixen’s death and the appearance of one of her cubs as a symbol of the cyclic nature of life. In this final scene the animal and human worlds seem to come together as the Forrester muses on the constant renewal of all things as part of a kind of hymn to creation – this “from death comes life” finale manages poignancy without sentimentality.

Unbelievably, it’s all of eight years since I saw Vixen in Wellington last, a production by Nimby Opera at the Salvation Army Citadel, which most splendidly made use of both the venue’s limited spaces and reduced instrumental forces, drawing we in the audience right into the world of Janáček’s drama. Here, at the Hannah Playhouse, space was equally at a premium, though with a differently-configured and more clearly-defined “stage” and orchestral areas – nevertheless the production, like its predecessor, was able to generate a similarly compelling theatrical immediacy.

Right from the beginning we found ourselves in thrall to the composer’s evocation of the forest, underlining the use of the orchestra as a kind of “character” in the story – the opening is given entirely to the instruments, who then drive the ensuing action and colour the characterisations of the singers. I know of no other composer so adept at simultaneously combining sharply-focused rhythmic patternings with heart-easing lyrical outpourings, each enhancing the flavour and atmosphere of the other.

I thought Kenneth Young’s control of this ebb and flow of sounds had a naturalness which kept the theatrical flow alive while appearing to give both his singers and players ample space in which to allow their music its full value. Yes, there were isolated instances of rawness of tuning and out-of-synch chording, but I found the playing astonishing overall in its physicality and energy, and in the beauty and piquancy of both its corporate and individually-focused characterisations.

While I struggled with making sense of some of the aspects of the production (the scenes which took place in the clinical-like “upstairs” part of the set meant little or nothing to me in terms of the story or its overall setting) I delighted in the inventiveness of the more down-to-earth (literally) depictions of the scenario, with a backdrop whose many apertures could conceal or disgorge figures at will and suggest with appropriately varied lighting, both the beauties and concealed mysteries of the forest and the convolutions and crudities of simple human dwellings and their trappings.

What I think the production was able to suggest and put across (without needing those obtrusive white coats) was an engaging connectiveness between the lives of the story’s “ordinary” human characters with the overall flow of nature and its plethora of possibilities for all life-forms in a world that’s both caring and pitiless. The composer’s desire to remove the “happily-ever-after” aspect of the original story was. I think, a reflection of this desire for a wider integration. We observed the various roll-plays of parallels between urban and rural, domestic and untamed, enslaved and free throughout, and found ourselves in disarming sympathy with the disadvantaged, the disappointed and the dispossessed.

To that end, the individual characterisations of the student performers were, I thought, outstanding in their commitment, understanding and level of theatrical and musical skill. Very rightly, the stunning performance of Pasquale Orchard as the Vixen herself, though the centrepiece of all that took place on the stage, was still always very much part of an interactive ensemble, as quick to engage with as to respond to the other characters. Her gestures and movements perfectly mirrored her dramatic intent, which was all to the good, because though I thought her vocal production strong and filled with variety, it suffered diction-wise during the “big” moments. This was the case for most of the time with the other singers throughout the production – opera in English can be a frustrating experience for this reason, leaving one wondering at times whether the exercise is worth the while, and accordingly, longing for surtitles!

As the Forester, Joe Haddow’s was the first voice to be heard, announcing an oncoming storm (consulting his smart-phone, presumably in search of a weather-forecast!) and reminiscing on things like his wedding-night, the voice strong and sonorous, and a trifle world-weary, but conveying a character capable of appreciating life’s beauties and ironies – his extended, “full-circle” soliloquy towards the opera’s end was for the most part richly delivered (the brasses accompanied him magnificently), though just occasionally the melodic line’s intensity strained his voice – somebody who knows of life’s joys and disappointments, and can ride along with them.

The other male characters in the story also relished their depictions, Daniel Sun as the lovesick schoolmaster, somewhat tremulous of tone but pitching his voice accurately and evocatively, Nino Raphael as the disgruntled (and evicted) Badger (a scene augmented most excitingly by violin and ‘cello), and then as the equally disconsolate priest (“I’m just a dried-up mop in a bucket”) reflecting on his loveless life; and Garth Norman, properly morose as the Forester’s Dog, as well as a suitably business-like Innkeeper. Most vagrant-like of all (apart from his laboratory-coat-like garb) was Will King’s Poacher, free-spirited and romantic in places (his entrance a love-song) and impulsive in others (his clumsy pursuit of the Vixen), all delivered most convincingly with a suitably engaging voice and appropriately gauche movements. Together, these characters made a suitably and evocatively rustic line-up!

An additional “male” character – Goldspur, the Fox – was depicted most handsomely and suavely by Alexandra Gandionco, whose voice blended most beautifully with the Vixen’s during their meeting/courtship scene, nicely presenting a “gentler” vocal personality than the Vixen’s more volatile, less suave manner. Alternately, the two “wives” in the story, the Forester’s and the Innkeeper’s, were alternately given properly no-nonsense personas by Sally Haywood, energetic and gossipy. Too many to enumerate, the supporting animal roles brought out enactments with both individual and concerted presence, for the most part beautifully co-ordinated – the Act Three “forest-sneak-up” game, for one, was a delightful highlight.

Had the words been clearer in places, our pleasure would have been more than complete – still, as it was, we were captivated by what we’d seen and heard. The music, its vocal and instrumental performance, allied with the setting and (for me) its discernable, dramatically-defined action, made for all I had the chance to speak with afterwards an absorbing and satisfying operatic experience, one for which the stewardship of the NZSM here at Wellington’s Victoria University deserves considerable praise.

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