Even before the singing, Victorian Opera’s Cunning Little Vixen captured the imagination as members of the adult and children’s chorus capered and crawled about the stage as various animals. Roger Kirk’s colourful costumes draw on elements of the human world in clever, playful ways: the bees, for example, had badminton racquets crossed on their backs as wings, gloves lined up along the caterpillar’s belly, and the mosquito sported a big syringe on his head.
Other animals seen through the course of Stuart Maunder’s nuanced production included a frog in flippers bouncing around on a plastic hopper ball, and a brood of chickens, whose frilly white undergarments and spiky red wigs enhanced the performers’ nervous movements so wonderfully. Though Dimity Shepherd’s chic owl threatened to steal the show, the joyful animal kingdom’s stars were the foxes, in gorgeous rusty-brown costumes that recalled smart European attire of a century ago.
In this opera adapted by Janáčzek in the 1920s from a serialised illustrated story, the humans were in stark contrast, dressed in dark, earthy colours. Their plain costumes’ blacks, browns and greys reflected the outlook of characters who sang of regret and distant youth, as cubs became foxes, generations of frogs came and went, and Trudy Dalgleish’s attractive lighting conjured the passing seasons on Richard Roberts’ sparse, open set. Though it’s all done on a modest budget, this Cunning Little Vixen’s visual elements contribute hugely to its success.
It’s also an aurally satisfying production. While the score’s lusher passages were somewhat thin due to just 21 musicians playing amid the slightly chilly acoustics of the Playhouse, these factors generally suited the predominantly spare orchestration. Led by Sydney Chamber Opera director Jack Symonds, the ensemble drawn from Orchestra Victoria was precise and well balanced.
Barry Ryan anchored the performance as Forester, an ageing man who finds respite from his melancholy outlook in the woods, and takes the titular vixen home in a misguided shot at enduring contentment. Ryan’s warm, confident baritone was shot through with restrained but powerful emotion, which he also conveyed dramatically with a tender caress of his new pet or taking rest as if laying down life’s burdens. Though the other human characters are minor roles, they were nicely done. Rising young baritone Samuel Dundas was equal parts swagger and doubt as Harašta, and tenor Brenton Spiteri’s schoolmaster was full of regret.
The animal allegory was adroitly led by Celeste Lazarenko’s vixen. This principal role is unusually light on vocally, so while her pleasant soprano was evocative, Lazarenko’s measured performance expressed a great deal of her character’s feistiness and vulnerability in other ways. As her love interest, Antoinette Halloran was sometimes slightly vocally strained but otherwise compelling as a dapper fox with amorous intent.
As mentioned, the chorus were delightful, including the children whose confident movement revealed quality rehearsal and talent. Ruby Ditton deserves special mention for the subtlety of her performance as the young vixen.
Apart from acoustics that weren’t quite ideal – occasional vocal fortissimo raised cold little reverberations – the intimacy of the Playhouse was well suited to this short, bittersweet opera, so deftly interpreted by all concerned.