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In the fox-club

Arts Theatre
11/10/2004 -  
Leos Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen
Deryck Hamon (Badger/Priest), Dwayne Jones (Mosquito/Cock/Teacher), Catherine May (Grasshopper/Pepik/Hen/Jay/Foxcub), Serena Kay (Grasshopper/Frantik/Hen/Owl/Foxcub), Louise Walsh (Vixen), Richard Burkhard (Dog/Poacher), Clarissa Meek (Hen/Fox), Catherine Hegarty (Forester's Wife/Woodpecker/Foxcub), Roderick Earle (Forester)

Peter Robinson (conductor), James Conway (director)

English Touring Opera Orchestra

English Touring Opera, as its name suggests, reaches parts of the country that do not have resident opera companies. For most of its twenty five years, it seemed worthy rather than exciting, doing pretty good mainstream repertoire for audiences who couldn't travel to London or even to the nearest visit of the Glyndebourne, Opera North or WNO tour. Since James Conway, formerly of the Opera Theatre Company, Ireland, took over as director this year, though, there has been a sharp upturn in innovation and excitement in ETO's productions. A strange but effective chamber version of Ariodante ( a co-production with OTC) was followed by an ebullient, feelgood Marriage of Figaro with an exemplary cast and a charming setting, and a truly magical Midsummer Night's Dream.

This season's offering is comparably mainstream, La Bohème and The Cunning Little Vixen. The programme note for the Vixen, though, suggests a certain amount of straining for innovation by spelling out the human story in full and presenting the animal action as a therapeutic ritual organized by the man who plays the Forester to help him deal with his loss of status as he ages and is supplanted by the man who plays the Poacher, who is about to marry the woman who plays the Vixen. (She is also the Terynka about whom the Schoolteacher waxes lyrical.) Although the idea of a ritual in animal masks as a rite of passage is a familiar one, it hardly belongs to Janacek's romantic quasi-comic strip. The music, performed in an effective reduced version by Jonathan Dove, as always made it clear that the animals are at least as like us as the unhappy humans. The production itself reflected the "ritual" only with more roles doubled than usual -- hardly unusual in a touring company -- and a few gestures at the beginning and ends of the acts. The rest was fairly typical anthropomorphism, with hens in headscarfs, the fox in red shirt and trousers, and the frog who wakes up the Forester on a spacehopper.

Perhaps the work of exploring the "real-world" events that lie behind the vixen's story paid off, though: the performance was in itself thoroughly rewarding, mixing comedy, pathos, sex and animal spirits in due measure. Louise Walsh was a sparky Sharpears and Clarissa Meek a charming, randy fox. Roderick Earle was suitably gruff and desperate, and eventually moving, as the Forester, and Richard Burkhard was thoroughly testosterone-laden as the Dog and the Poacher. The ensemble, chickens, chatty birds, fox cubs and all, as well as the miserable old men, were delightful.

HE Elsom



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