Janacek on a small scale

CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN

Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne

Thursday June 22

       Antoinette Halloran (Fox), Celeste Lazarenko (Vixen)

While it was a fair effort on the company’s part  to get this problematic work onto the stage, a few days after the event it strikes me that not much about the production could be called memorable or striking.  The singers and orchestra went through the score with efficiency but, apart from the principals, you got the feeling that not much else was added. On top of this sense of ordinariness, Stuart Maunder’s direction of the secondary and tertiary figures impressed as perfunctory and, as he had little enough resource material to work with, the unsatisfying effect was all the more prominent.

The last two times I’ve been in this theatre have been for VO work: Respighi’s The Sleeping Beauty and Ernest Toch’s The Princess and the Pea – both of which slotted into the Playhouse space well enough.  The Janacek opera is another matter altogether.  You can admire the truncation of orchestral forces by Jonathan Dove as a sad/necessary job done competently but nothing makes up for the absence of power in those terse rhapsodic outbursts that constitute the score’s chief glory.   The main trio of singers – Celeste Lazarenko, Antoinette Halloran, Barry Ryan (Forester) – gave respectable accounts of their roles, and their peers on the human side showed equal assurance: Brenton Spiteri’s regretful Schoolmaster, Samuel Dundas bumbling but lethal as the poacher Harasta, Jeremy Kleeman’s Parson sustaining with distinction his maudlin solo Pomni, abys byl.

On a bare stage with abstract representations of trees, the chorus of forest creatures assembled for the capture of the vixen – but in lamentably small numbers, unable to communicate the composer’s sonorous fabric suggesting the teeming life in this environment.   Ryan’s stentorian timbre proved exemplary from this scene until his final meditation – that marvellous and moving stretch beginning Nerikal jsem to?!.  But his orchestral support sounded meagre, as though the pit occupants were operating from some distance away.  At most points, the animals’ interpolations were left unwoven into the orchestral fabric, the singers treating their interjections and comments with plenty of regard for the rhythm and nothing at all for the vocal-orchestral ambience in operation.

Lazarenko made impressive work of her feminist pitch to the hens, keeping you involved even though her line is a sequence of short phrases.  Even better came in the courting scene; not so much a duet as a dialogue and carried out with reassuring fluency alongside’Halloran.   Although the Vixen has room to establish a character, the Fox has to work quickly and one of the more impressive segments of this production came in that Bozinku, ten je hezke! section where both characters meet.  Neither they nor Janacek waste time and the movement from here to the end-of-act wedding should sweep you into the action compulsively.

Disappointingly, these great moments felt under-powered, like the repetitive post-wedding chorus at the conclusion to Act 2 and the final D flat peroration, reminiscent of the composer’s Sinfonietta, that communicates so honestly the work’s underlying pantheism.  You need heft and timbral depth at both points, qualities that Jack Symonds’ 20-strong orchestra was unable to provide.

Yes, I understand that this was a budget effort and a charitable spectator is expected to make certain allowances.   But the actual look of the work smacked of carelessly cut corners and making-do.  You can mentally compensate for deficiencies in scale when dealing with operas that really amount to operettas without dialogue; Cunning Little Vixen is no such creature.  For all the apparent disjunction of its scenes as they oscillate from human to animal, from inn and house to forest glade, from cruelty to love, the opera works on a large canvas; even the Schoolmaster’s mooncalf-like regretful longings for Terynka need to be negotiated with purpose and spirit.

A fair effort from the company, for sure, and a daring one but the actual realization, visual and aural, gave us all too often only a shadow of the original’s magnificent paean of delight in creation.

The opera will be presented again on Tuesday July 27 and Thursday June 29 at 7:30 pm, and on Saturday July 1 at 1 pm.