For compelling reasons, this charming interpretation of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen by Sir David Pountney long before he was knighted has been the preferred choice for opera companies over the past four decades, Opera North amongst them. Its success at an Edinburgh Festival in 1980 has been repeated a number of times, making any new version something requiring bravery, and it has a deserved reputation for having wide appeal. Less sombre than the composer’s other works, not overlong and derived from a newspaper comic strip, it is considered to be very appealing to children and their parents, in spite of the lack of conventional melodiousness. This has been proved true yet again in Leeds.

Elin Pritchard (Vixen Sharp-Ears)
© Tristram Kenton

The episodic plot is straightforward, based on the natural cycle of life, death and renewal, following the vixen of the title through her life, beginning with her capture as a cub by a forester and continuing through her escape, love, marriage, offspring and her eventual violent death, before one of her cubs – a new vixen – appears in the finale to complete the cycle.

The late Maria Björnson's set is transformed by relatively simple means into a forest, with rolling hills both green and snow-covered containing a badger sett, the backyard of a cottage and the grey backroom of a miserable pub. A couple of branches are suspended when needed, denoting changing seasons, along with various characters on wires. In contrast with the naturalistically dressed humans, Björnson’s costumes for the many anthropomorphic animals sometimes tend towards the pantomimic, as with some hilarious head-bobbing hens, but all of them must greatly aid the performers, young and old, to create credible blends of animal and human behaviour.

The Company of The Cunning Little Vixen
© Tristram Kenton

The crowded opening scenes are comedically captivating, with many moving points of interest, like children as scuttling squirrels and with flower parasols, birds, a dragonfly (dangling from a pole) which slowly dies, a mosquito with a long, bloodstained proboscis which stabs the sleeping forester, and a concertina-playing caterpillar. The mature vixen, sung by soprano Elin Pritchard, appears soon afterwards, tied up behind the forester’s home, persecuted by his obnoxious children and threatened unsuccessfully with canine rape by a scruffy old farm dog (bass James Davies). Pritchard made a terrific radical feminist when she sang a brief lecture to the hens about being dominated by the strutting Cockerel (tenor Campbell Russell) before slaughtering the lot of them with fast hand movements in an explosion of red feathers, one of a series of reminders that foxes do what foxes must do. 

Paul Nilon (Schoolmaster), James Rutherford (Forester) and Henry Waddington (Parson)
© Tristram Kenton

Act 2 is marked by some subtle humour, with a touching evocation of first-time love-making from Pritchard and Fox, sung by mezzo Heather Lowe, both gambolling about nimbly and singing together beautifully. Pritchard's strong, limpid tones conveyed total emotional involvement with the part, with a lightness which matched her foxy mischief. She mused, “How could he find me beautiful?” in a magical duet with the richly-voiced Lowe, dominating the stage with sheer joyfulness. It was the high point of the show for me. In a scene in the grey pub, the voice of the Forester, superbly played by vibrant bass-baritone James Rutherford, acquired extra stridency. He rushed out in pursuit of the Vixen after taunts from fellow boozers the Schoolmaster (tenor Paul Nilon) and the Latin-quoting Parson (bass Henry Waddington), both satirical caricatures. Waddington was strangely moving in his role, his voice conveying resentfulness, relatively subdued. When they all venture into the hills, the humour becomes more physical, with plenty of slipping and tumbling on the ice as the Vixen avoids them teasingly, along with a passing reference to the musical term glissando.

Heather Lowe (Fox) and Elin Pritchard (Vixen Sharp-Ears) with children (fox cubs)
© Tristram Kenton

The final act is darker. When our sharp-eared heroine was suddenly shot dead after initially outwitting the poacher Harašta (bass-baritone Callum Thorpe) there were loud gasps from several in the audience. Thorpe's powerful voice was loud and harsh as he faced his victim. but when the Forester slept and dreamed of the Vixen (Lucy Burns as her spirit) and the new cub was on stage, the mood became distinctly spiritual as the inevitable cycle of nature was brought to mind, accompanied by some of Janáček’s most affecting music. Conductor Andrew Gourlay (making his Opera North debut) and the orchestra excelled here, dealing most efficiently with the episodic nature of the plot.