Sharp ears for the light-headed

from the TLS

Leos Janacek
Katya Kabanova

The Cunning Little Vixen
Covent Garden

The current worldwide popularity of operas by Leos Janacek is in large part a result of our fondness for them here in Britain. Sir Charles Mackerras, who shortly after the war studied in Prague under the conductor Václav Talich (an early promoter of Janacek), has been the key figure in this development since Sadler’s Wells first staged Katya Kabanova in 1951. It comes as a surprise therefore to learn that the recent run of The Cunning Little Vixen – which included the conductor’s 280th performance for the Royal Opera since his debut in 1964 – offered Mackerras his first opportunity to conduct the work at Covent Garden.

At 84, Mackerras’s person may have lost some of its former sprightliness. His music making, however, has lost none. Janacek’s score for his beloved Vixen Bystrouska is a jewel-encrusted thing, at once airily lightheaded and intensely flavoured, and Mackerras allows the orchestra to explore every facet with such clarity and concentration that the audience is able to sit back and let a dizzying sensation of weightlessness wash over them. It is an economical score, in the sense that Janacek constantly reuses and reshapes his material, but there is not the slightest hint of repetitiveness.

The purely musical delights of the experience aside, Mackerras’s approach is well suited to Bill Bryden and William Dudley’s vintage production from 1990, now in its third revival and to which the atmosphere of airy enchantment is key. By modern standards it’s a cluttered staging, which ties the spectacular accoutrements of grand opera – ballet, aerial acrobatics, elaborate machinery, lots of lavishly costumed children running to and fro bathed in a greenish golden light – into a crepuscular representation of animal and human society, where the line between the two is carefully blurred. The advantage of this blurring – beyond its faithfulness to the composer’s intentions in adapting Rudolf Tesnohlídek’s novel – is that it draws our attention to the real love interest in this otherwise cosy vixen- meets-fox romance: namely, the longing of the Forester for his sharp-eared vixen, a blood-lust that mingles with desires of an equally deep-rooted, erotic nature.

This emphasis, in turn, allows Christopher Maltman to give a superbly crafted interpretation of the role, drawing out from his heavy but radiant baritone both the Forester’s violence and his wistfulness. Maltman’s ability to project above Janacek’s often crowded orchestra put most of the other soloists to shame (except the veteran Robin Leggate, appearing as the Schoolmaster and the Mosquito in his 900th performance for the Royal Opera) and made me wonder why we don’t see him on the operatic stage more often. If enchantment is at the heart of Vixen, an equally pervasive sense of disenchantment is at work in Katya Kabanova. The difference in mood aside, the two operas are otherwise strikingly similar. Couched in a comparably breathless style, with numerous points of musical contact, both dramas concentrate on the same themes of yearning for freedom, redemption through love and, of course, violence. If we accept the idea that the key relationship in Vixen is between hunter and prey, we then find that the equivalent relationship in Katya – between the heroine and her beastly mother-in-law – is the one that pulls most of the dramatic weight. This is not to say that Katya’s night of passion with Boris is incidental, but that Janacek, in placing most of it off-stage, understands that Boris is a psychological catalyst, there to endow Katya with the courage necessary for her to escape her torment in the only way possible.

This three-way relationship is precisely rendered in David Alden’s new production for English National Opera, a minimalist staging – a movable wall and a chair or two – with statuesque blocking that couldn’t be less like Covent Garden’s Vixen. The Australian tenor Stuart Skelton, who last year made such an impression as Peter Grimes for Alden at ENO, captures Boris’s essential ambiguity. His clear tone enables him, like Maltman, to float effortlessly on Janacek’s choppy waves of sound, but he also manages to convey the character’s burning lack of conviction, that essential passivity which all but removes him from the moral battlefield. This gives Susan Bickley’s magnificently icy Kabanicha free rein to hunt down the American soprano Patricia Racette’s mousey, rather solipsistic Katya. Light relief comes from the less heated, more knowing partnership of Varvara and Vanya, shared out engagingly between the Swedish mezzo Anna Grevelius and Alfie Boe. Mark Wigglesworth conducted.

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