Review: The Cunning Little Vixen, Opera North, Leeds Grand Theatre, Saturday, February 4, 2023

Humans interact with a host of animals, birds and insects, all of course portrayed by humans, in this most enchanting of operas. Czech composer Leos Janacek adapted the story of Vixen Sharp Ears from the cartoons of Stanislav Lolek and turned it into a searching reflection on nature’s cycle of life.

We are shocked and saddened when the defiant Sharp Ears is callously shot dead by Callum Thorpe’s Harasta the Poacher, but her spirit lives on in the playful forms of her many cubs. In the opera’s final scene, the Forester sung by James Rutherford, dozes in the afternoon spring sunshine. He dreams of the slain Vixen and nature’s inevitable renewal. Janacek’s richly inventive orchestral score reaches its heartwarming spiritual climax and the stage is filled with fox cubs and all the forest creatures

David Pountney’s production was originally staged by Scottish Opera at the 1980 Edinburgh Festival and is still charming audiences several generations later. Maria Bjornson’s picturebook scenic and costume designs, wonderfully lit by Nick Chelton, transport the audience into another world. Foxes and other forest creatures emerge from their trapdoor burrows beneath rolling green hills and trees. The hills open up to reveal the badger’s house and the local hostelry.

Isabelle Payne’s Cricket and Aimee Fischer’s Caterpillar give a concert, Kamil Bien’s Mosquito pierces the sleeping forester and complains about the alcohol in his blood. Kathryn Sharpe’s Woodpecker conducts the marriage of Fox to Vixen Sharp Ears.

Janacek composed both the libretto and the music for his late masterpiece. He packs in so many episodes and tiny vignettes. Every single one stands out. The pivotal central roles are illuminated by Elin Pritchard as the Vixen, Heather Lowe as Fox and James Rutherford as the Forester. The Orchestra of Opera North is conducted by Andrew Gourlay in his company debut. Janacek’s gleaming Moravian folk music-infused score fills the auditorium but is never permitted to subsume the singers. There are just four more performances at Leeds Grand: February 17 and 23 and March 3 and 4. Not to be missed.