Live review: Sydney Chamber Opera/The Cunning Little Vixen/Carriageworks August 2011

Posted: January 9, 2012 in Music gig review: art
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A rustic woodland setting, autumn leaves falling to the stage, forest animals (played by children no less) gamboling and prancing about. How idyllic. Well, maybe not. Leoš Janáček’s 1924 opera “The Cunning Little Vixen” is a typical modernist work of the early 20th century, unsentimental and faintly nihilistic, with vaguely violent revolutionary overtones.

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Feminist Icon, perhaps?

Janáček – Czechoslovakia’s contemporary to Hungary’s Bela Bartok – rooted his compositions in the folk music of his country, and yet, like Bartok, applied an entirely modern voice to these inspirations. The story of “The Cunning Little Vixen” was taken from a comic strip in a Czech city newspaper but has a folk feeling to its characters and story – but only to the extent that modernism allows.

A cunning little female fox – Vixen Sharp-Ears – is captured by a game-keeper as a pet. After years tied up in the farmyard, she exhorts the dumb-cluck barnyard chickens to turn against their pompous, dominating rooster. When they refuse and decide to stick with the oppressive rooster, she chews through her ropes and kills them all – like any good Marxist radical – before escaping.

She meets a boy fox, and after an unwanted pregnancy and the gossipy social pressure of the forest dwellers, is forced into marriage and motherhood. All modern stuff. There are cross currents to the simple vixen story – themes of unrequited love, grief and spiritual emptiness involving the gamekeeper and a village schoolteacher. The only small wink of sentimentality is right at the end when the gamekeeper notices the animals around him are the children of the animals at the beginning of the play. The realisation of the cycle of life and the inevitability of time reflect the fact that Janáček wrote the music and libretto of this opera when he was in his 70s.

This is the second production by the Sydney Chamber Opera (I am kicking myself that I missed their first, an original adaptation of Dostoevsky’s “Notes From the Underground”) and they are a company to watch. Taking on the more boutique works of opera, they produce great results out of a tiny budget. Meagre funds being the mother of invention, invention is everywhere here. And after some of the over-egged Sydney Opera House blockbuster productions, it is a raw pleasure to see an astringent, immediate production such as this, up close and within reach (in every sense).

Soprano Julie Goodwin, fresh from “West Side Story”, plays the heroine, Vixen Sharp-Ears. Often a battle with modernist works is that the characters are so devoid of traditional sentimentality that they are often hard to like. Goodwin’s Sharp-Ears is, however, a superhero – feisty, untameable, independent and spirited – and you find yourself rooting for her all the way. The pro-power that Goodwin brings from “West Side” and “Phantom of the Opera” is evident in every note, every move and every look – quite something to see (and hear).

Hanna Sandgren’s production design is also something to see. Drawn from simple elements, her effects are startling. Children holding oversized yellow flowers are simultaneously a sunflower field and a surreal dreamscape. A battery of white kitchen chairs become a farmyard fence, then a tavern. The enormous white sheet that Sharp-Ears and her enormous litter of fox cubs sleep under becomes, with no adjustment at all, a field of snow under a poacher’s feet (when the sheet leaves the stage it is snaked off, like a river – yet another perfect tiny detail). Together with Kate Gaul’s sharp, fat-free direction, Sandgren’s design holds the contrasting modernistic/rustic elements of the opera in perfect balance. (And to think this is her first fully professional debut as a designer out of NIDA – this city breeds some amazing talent).

Janáček’s score is another star of this production. He wrote it after a lifetime of innovation and rugged individualism, and yet, like Stravinsky’s ballet scores, it directs your emotion into the drama before you unwaveringly – barely using a single cliché or sentimental trick. Conductor Jack Symonds’ 15-piece chamber orchestra is a match for the music, expressing all of it quirks and colours with real muscle and joy in the telling.

The immediacy of this chamber opera in the small (but packed) Bay 20 Theatre at Carriageworks reminded me of what is exciting about theatre – where performance overrides production, where the footfalls and prop squeaks are within earshot. The sense of ‘now’ is the rush of any live show and The Sydney Chamber Opera have that ‘now’ down to a tee.

Dostoevsky. Janáček. What will they do next? I really can’t wait.

Published August 2011 on


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