Posts Tagged ‘Charles Mackerras’

The Cunning Little Vixen, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, March 2010

20 March, 2010

For anyone who loves magical realism this opera is one of the best, and the production by Bill Bryden makes the most of it, with forest animals on the ground and flying through the air. The dichotomy between the slow moving human world and the swift flow and change of the animal realm is brought out very well, and the springtime of Act III is beautifully portrayed. There’s a famous poem in Czech called May (Mai in Czech) extolling the mysterious powers of nature, and in his libretto, Janaček uses May as a metaphor for springtime. He was powerfully drawn to nature, and this opera, like its predecessor Katya Kabanova — also playing in London at present — pits natural forces against the contrivances of human civilization. Janaček wrote it in 1924 when he was nearly 70, three years after Katya, and both operas, along with his two final ones, deal with death in one way or another. This one in particular juxtaposes the aging of men with the cyclical renewal of nature.

Human civilization is mainly represented by three men, the Forester, the Schoolmaster, and the Priest, and at one point all three sit in a round orb suspended from above, reminding me of that nursery rhyme, Rub-a-dub-dub; three men in a tub. The three of them are, at least emotionally, frustrated, and the schoolmaster’s yearning for a gypsy girl, is like the yearning of man for nature, and parallels the forester’s original entrapment of the vixen, whom he can’t keep. In the event, the gypsy girl, whom we never see, marries the poacher, and the vixen marries the fox and produces a huge family. When the poacher shoots her, a small child in the audience burst into tears, which charmed some people, but this is not an opera for small children. It’s very much an adult work, and I think the Royal Opera have done the right thing to have it sung in English. The libretto by the composer is subtle, and worth understanding. That said, the opera first became known through its German translation by Max Brod, which gave us the English title. In Czech it’s called Vixen Sharp Ears.

The conducting by veteran Charles Mackerras was wonderful. This is the man who introduced British audiences to Janaček, and having him in the orchestra pit was a treat. The singing was very good throughout. Emma Matthews was a thoroughly charming vixen, and Elisabeth Meister gave a good portrayal of the fox, replacing Emma Bell at the last minute. Christopher Maltman was an excellent forester, and Robin Leggate and Jeremy White both did well as the schoolmaster and the priest, with Matthew Rose singing strongly in the bass role of the poacher.

But this is an opera to be seen as well as heard, and William Dudley’s designs, along with the movement directed by Stuart Hopps, have a wonderful charm. Magical realism is probably more widely known from something like One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but the Slavic version is also a joy. Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita comes to mind, and in the opera world Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges, written just three years before Vixen. If you don’t already know the opera, and even if you do, this production by Bill Bryden is a must-see.

The Turn of the Screw, ENO, English National Opera, October 2009

23 October, 2009

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David McVicar’s atmospheric production with dark lighting designed by Adam Silverman gives an excellent view of this disturbing story. The designs by Tanya McCallin, involving sliding walls and screens, with black costumes for everyone, are very effective, and the performers all conveyed the haunting nature of this opera. With thirteen musicians in the pit, under the direction of Charles Mackerras, the musical rendering could not be better — Mackerras conducted the original English production at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in 1954, so he knows very well what Benjamin Britten intended.

The singers formed an excellent cast. Rebecca Evans was wonderful as the governess, portraying her sympathy and closeness to the boy, Miles, who was beautifully played by Charlie Manton. Ann Murray was suitably prosaic as Mrs. Grose the housekeeper, who sees no ghosts, and Nazan Fikret was the girl, Flora. Cheryl Barker, whom I recall in the main role of The Makropulos Case three years ago, sang an excellently ghostly Miss Jessel, and Michael Colvin sang lyrically as the insidious Peter Quint, and as the man in the Prologue.

The story is that Miss Jessel and Quint both died in mysterious circumstances some time before the events of the opera take place, yet they still haunt the children. Only when Miles finally rejects Quint is he cured, though he dies immediately after. It’s a disturbing story that one might wish to avoid, but this production shows what a superb opera it is, very well worth a visit.