The Cunning Little Vixen is the early twentieth century avant garde work Perth audiences have been crying out for. WA Opera will continue to play it safe in the remainder of the season (Don Giovanni and Carmen), yet for their first foray onto the stage at His Majesty’s Theatre audiences are treated to an incredibly moving and irreverent production complete with turbulent impressionistic score, heartfelt performances, and innovative costumes.
Originally devised by Victorian Opera, the beauty and cyclical nature of the forest is embraced and takes on a new relevance in the seasonal Perth climate. Richard Roberts’ minimalistic set is brilliantly simplistic and majestic at once. Consisting of wooden representations of trees that cast the most beautiful shadows under the lighting design by Trudy Dalgleish, the set is a literal backdrop allowing the vibrant and innovative costumes and sweeping scale and pent up energy of the titular vixen herself to take centre-stage. And what costumes! It is a real treat to see Roger Kirk‘s quirky and clever costuming – from a literal cricket (complete with pads, helmet and wickets) to a bouncy and slippery frog, every detail is precisely executed down to the last feather!
As Janacek‘s enchanting score comes to life, a forest idyll unfurls before us – a lazy summer’s day in the forest glade bursts forth with life – the frog, a cranky badger, grasshopper and cricket, a fussy owl resplendent in Dame Edna-esque feathers and spectacles all ducking the blood-sucking mosquito (a total crack up with its syringes and cylinders of blood!) Playfully flitting about the forest is the little vixen – as the score takes on an almost mythic tone, the Forester (James Clayton) enters and settles down for his ‘midsummer night’s dream.’ A beautifully clever timelapse occurs to depict the capture and eventual growing up of the Vixen (Emma Pearson) from energetic little girl to self-assured and scrappy fighter.
Pearson is absolutely endearing as the titular Vixen – her diminutive figure playfully and cockily flits in between the trees as her fun yet haunting two-note motif reflect her inner emotions, from excitement, to love, and eventually torment. The hen scene is probably one of the most fun and enduring moments to be staged by WA Opera – Director Stuart Maunder captures the flightly, broody, and ‘flock mentality’ of the silly hens perfectly. Dressed immaculately in white fluffy corsets, they prance and primp their way across the stage, tormenting the hungry and feminist Vixen. In a whirlwind of fluttering flutes and dramatic horns and drums, the Vixen cunningly tricks the Rooster and lays waste to the entire henhouse before making her daring and exciting escape.
Returning to the forest, the Vixen’s energy is renewed as she realises how powerful a figure she cuts. Pearson’s confidence soars in unison with her voice as she turfs out the badger and becomes the new Queen of the forest. There is genuine fun as Rachelle Durkin enters dressed as the dandy fox – this costume looks straight out of Wind in the Willows! Durkin is a wonderfully expressive performer, her face says it all and the comic nature of the Fox and Vixen’s courting is certainly not lost in the charm of Durkin’s mannerisms. When Janacek first stumbled upon these forest characters in a comic serial back in 1920, he immediately saw them manifested to life in front of his closed eyes. Durkin, Pearson and the company of forest dwellers really bring an energy to the characters – there is genuine emotional investment and celebration as the score provides a folk-inspired wedding in the final long days of Autumn.
Winter approaches and with it, the drama turns to the human protagonists. Clayton’s Forester is brooding and obsessed with trying to tame the Vixen – or exact his revenge on her. The Parson (Paull-Anthony Keightley) clearly has a problem with alcohol, and could be questioning his faith. Keightley’s unique baritone mires his troubles in the depths of despair, especially as he covets the (unseen) Terynka. Matt Rueben is a sympathetic character as the Schoolmaster, yet his pining over Terynka seems a little incongrouos to an audience that is more invested in the Vixen’s story – the lamentations of the humans feel a little shoehorned, but that is unfortunately the yoke WA Opera must wear when producing a work they can’t manipulate.
Durkin and Pearson continue to charm as this beautifully staged work comes to a close. Pearson’s voice bounces with laughter as she explains to her kittens how she will always outsmart the Forester. The bittersweet conclusion of the work will leave an indelible print on your memory. As the Forester returns to the forest glade, Clayton’s expression perfectly captures the ups and downs of life. He sits down to enjoy another sleep, and is reminded by the grandson of the very frog he saw all those seasons ago, of the eternally renewing power of nature. Full of worldly wisdom, the Forester allows himself to re-set into a calmer state of mind and does not repeat his earlier mistake of interfering with the way of the world.
It’s a stunning production of a turbulent and dramatic work. WA Opera’s The Cunning Little Vixen is the perfect mixture of experimental theatre, innovative design, and intuitive direction. This is the sort of work that sets the bar high, and it would be great if we could continue to raise it every time.
Review | Laura Money
WHEN: 21, 24, 26, 28 April 2018 | 7:30pm
WHERE: His Majesty’s Theatre
INFO: Tickets $30 – $115 | Duration 1 hour 30 mins (including interval) | Suitable 9+ (with adult accompaniment) | Audio described performance 26 April | OPERA