“Is this a fairy tale or reality? Reality or fairy tale?” Leoš Janáček’s heavy-eyed Forester steps out of his role towards the end of The Cunning Little Vixen and poses the very question we in the audience have been battling with all evening. From the first bracken-drenched chord we are plunged into a world of Moravian ambiguity – left to boggle at the anthropomorphic shenanigans set in motion by a plucky frog, as he hops into the sleeping Forester’s lap.

Sophia Burgos and Lucy Crowe
© Mark Allan

Stripped of the sylvan staging and lavish costumes we usually associate with Vixen, in this semi-staging at the Barbican Hall director Peter Sellars looked to more subversive means in order to conjure that heady, dream-like landscape – and blur the tragicomic lines between animal and human. Is the Forester still at slumber when he writhes sensuously on the floor with the adolescent Vixen? Are animals so sexually liberal that the Fox and Vixen must be married immediately after mating? Is the violence exhibited by Harašta confined to his humanity, or an element within nature itself? This equivocacy is, of course, entirely to Janáček's point, and Sellars expertly pinpoints Vixen’s satire on the shifting values of western culture.

A haphazard video backdrop designed by Nick Hillel and Adam Smith – inevitably placed alongside the surtitles – added little flavour but plenty of distraction to an already fizzing palette. It’s hard to feel much when you’re so busy flitting from screen to words to action. That said, the choice to stage Vixen in its original Czech was a wise one: Janáček’s music is so awash with the rhythms of his mother tongue that much of the opera’s magic is lost when translated to English. Equally apparent are the sounds of the Moravian forest-dwellers among whom Janáček immersed himself before writing Vixen. “For years I have listened to them, memorising their speech; I’m at home with them,” he wrote. Indeed, the skipping, insectile rhythms and lean melodies that infect his late style are never more apparent than in this wooded masterpiece.

Peter Hoare and Lucy Crowe
© Mark Allan

Providing the musical backdrop was an irresistible London Symphony Orchestra lead by Sir Simon Rattle – whose first interaction with the piece whilst still a student at the Royal Academy made him want to become an opera conductor. We’re talking puppies off the leash: visceral, headstrong and living utterly in the moment. Not a chirping brass fanfare nor a moonlit string cascade didn’t sound as though it was being relished. As the slain Vixen’s music returns for the opera’s transcendent final scene – in doing so underlining the cyclical nature of life – a rich modal sonority rings out: an ageing Janáček mixes melody and harmony from both E and D flat major. Rattle teased out this bluesy melange with visible glee – breaking free from his cordon and almost dancing amongst the players. After hearing the dress rehearsal of this final scene Janáček turned to his producer and said: “You must play this for me when I die”. Which they did, in August 1928.

Hanno Müller-Brachmann and Gerald Finley
© Mark Allan

Somewhat surprisingly, the opera is based on an illustrated serial created for a local newspaper by Rudolf Těsnohlídek and Stanislav Lolek. In the original novella – which has since become a Czech classic – ‘Vixen Sharp-Ears’ could be seen as carefree; one-dimensional as the paper on which she was printed. But clothed in Janáček’s ravishing score she multiplies into the complex and charismatic personality that Lucy Crowe so expertly portrays. “It will be an opera as well as a pantomime”, the composer proclaimed. Both Gerald Finley as the Forester and Hanno Müller-Brachmann as Harašta toed the line perfectly between the two – the latter with a voice so velvet I went and sought out his recordings as soon as I’d cycled home.

Incidentally, that cycle ride brought me face to face with one of London’s many urban vixens. Unperturbed she soon scuttled into next door’s garden where a fresh bin stood ready for plundering. Fairy tale or reality? Almost certainly the latter, but a night with Messrs Rattle and Sellars had me second-guessing myself for a moment.