Animal Magic

By Tanner, Michael | The Spectator, February 5, 2011 | Go to article overview

Animal Magic


Tanner, Michael, The Spectator


The Cunning Little Vixen

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

The annual collaboration between Scottish Opera and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama is, as the principal of the RSAMD writes, 'a model . . . for partnership working between professionals and professionals-in-training', and it is hard to think of any work more suitable for this partnership than Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen.

The 76 players in the orchestra include 21 RSAMD students, and the singers are mainly young professionals, with several of the chief roles being double cast. A bit regret - fully I saw the production in Edinburgh's Festival Theatre, a cavernous and unappealing venue, presenting problems of orchestral balance which wouldn't have arisen in Glasgow's Theatre Royal. The translation is David Pountney's well-tested version, as is the production itself, often seen at Scottish Opera and ENO. Pountney remains the arch-foe of surtitles, so naturally there were none here; and the result was that I failed to catch many of the words.

I had refreshed my memory of the work by watching the DVD of Felsenstein's celebrated Berlin production of 1956, which put the opera on the international map, and so was able to make comparisons, few of them to the disadvantage of the Scottish production, though in Felsenstein's very naturalistic version it is a treat to have so many close-ups.

Of all Janacek's operas this is the one that is most cinematic in technique, with characters coming into and out of focus often for just a line of dialogue. The venerable 1980 production, semi-naturalistic, now looks pretty moth-eaten, and was always functional rather than charming.

None of the mild snags prevented the evening from being intensely pleasurable, an almost complete success. The conductor Timothy Dean drew rich sounds from his orchestra, and not many acerbic ones, which would have been ideal. Anyone who was lucky enough to see the Royal Opera's revival last March will remember it as possibly the supreme achievement of Sir Charles Mackerras, thanks above all to the comprehensiveness of his vision, as he man - aged to convey it to the orchestra and the singers.

The only trouble - for the reviewer - with a performance on that level is that it silences criticism, even possibly to the point of making one feel guilty about reflecting on the experience later, as opposed simply to savouring it. Whereas the Scottish production, admirable as it is, leaves room for thinking about the remarkable nature of this opera's achievement, and its possible limitations.

In the present musical climate, any qualifications whatever that one might air about Janacek's music, any of it, are treated with the deafening silence of contempt. …

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