Melly Still
Melly Still
In many ways, The Cunning Little Vixen should be the perfect fit for Glyndebourne, with its idyllic countryside setting in the rolling Sussex hills. Yet it has only staged the opera twice: Jonathan Miller’s staging (in English) in 1975 (revived two years later); and Melly Still's in 2012, revived for the first time this summer. Janáček’s opera itself is far from idyllic, a “red in tooth and claw” account of Nature’s cycle.

Still’s production has quite a ‘cartoonish’ feel about the sets. How deliberately, I wondered, was she trying to echo the comic strip original published in the newspaper Lidové noviny that had inspired Janáček’s opera?

“When I first began to 'picture' the production," she explains, "I saw a tree and earth, one solitary tree to represent the forest in a perpetual state of regeneration and though we weren't trying to echo the cartoon strip deliberately, it's true that the recollection of vital and colourful characters plus a strong sense of fiction, brought to life by Lolek and Tēsnohlídek, was on our minds.”

For this production of Vixen, Still collaborated with designer Tom Pye, costume designer Dinah Collin and lighting designer Paule Constable. What is the process of putting on an opera at Glyndebourne actually like? “There are three things,” she explains. “Firstly the score. When I first tried to follow it I was overwhelmed by what felt like frantic shifts of time, impossible to keep up with. But after repeated efforts, the pleasure of being swept along by the score was exhilarating. It is an extraordinary evocation of forest life and actually a documentation of all life, of living, and of being aware of living and being aware of death. I was struck by the existential heart of the opera.

Tom Pye's set for <i>Vixen</i> © Bill Cooper | Glyndebourne (2012)
Tom Pye's set for Vixen
© Bill Cooper | Glyndebourne (2012)

“The second starting point was the quirky relationship between the animals and the humans. The wild animals flaunt their indifference to mortality and the relative freedom they experience because of that. They are uninhibited by time and this was central in informing the design: you'll notice that the animals traverse the decades and look down their noses at linear time; they bloom with colour and insolence which is expressed through their somewhat anachronistic dress code, as if playing a game of if I were a human, what kind of human would I be; the humans on the other hand are afraid of time passing, are stuck in time, (as arguably we all are) in this case the world of the opera's first production in 1923. When we think of 1923 or if we were to research the period we would recall black and white photographs and it's this monochrome aesthetic that conveys the human world in our production. As in the music, the human presence contrasts sharply with the natural world.

“The third starting point was Janáček's (probably unrequited) love for a much younger married woman, Kamila Stösslová, which inspired the tension between The Forester and The Vixen. He saw Kamila as a free spirit, a gypsy (she wasn't) and his unbearable yearning for the love and lust of youth is played out musically and dramatically in the opera when the Forester captures the playful and beautiful little vixen. Bystrouška has spirit and rebellion in her blood and bones and he wants what she’s got.”

Tinkering with a revival

When revisiting a production, though, how much Still likes to tinker with it? “As much as possible in this case! Tom, Dinah and I began discussions immediately after the last production and have had sporadic meetings since to ensure we can address any developments that are both manageable and necessary. There is no extra budget nor is there time to do anything extensive.

Mischa Schelomianski (Badger) © Bill Cooper | Glyndebourne (2012)
Mischa Schelomianski (Badger)
© Bill Cooper | Glyndebourne (2012)
“Any changes are probably not hugely evident and are about focusing and finessing storytelling: we've been looking at some costume and choreographic details in order to clarify the world of the animals and some set details to enhance clarity of location. For example I wanted the steeply almost vertically raked path, that spirals up the back of the stage, to double as the inside of a badger's sett or fox's lair as if viewed in cross section. However our tree (representing the ever changing forest) sculpted of recycled wood was too dense to allow enough visual access to the upstage path/burrow, so at a bauprobe [a mock-up of the stage design] in March we addressed this. I'm also keen to shift the interval from after the snowscape scene when the Forester attempts to shoot the Vixen, to after the wedding. This takes considerable planning given that we must now segue from Winter to Spring in a matter of seconds rather than over a leisurely long interval.”

The rehearsal period for Vixen spans four weeks including the technical and orchestral rehearsals on stage. Still comments that “although Glyndebourne offers luxurious rehearsal periods compared to other houses, it will still feel like a squeeze.”

A challenging set

Tom Pye’s set was steeply raked, showing a cross-section of the Badger’s sett beneath a huge tree. What challenges did this pose for directing the singers?

“It's undoubtedly a physical challenge and there is a a lot of substage activity as the performers negotiate the warren of traps and holes to dive in and out of. On the steep rake there are discreetly placed hand holds for clinging onto or hanging off and the tree is customised for easy climbing and perching. They enjoyed it. There is something about singing from the top of a tree that is quite liberating. It's designed to allow us, playfully, to share the the point of view sometimes of a bird (when a performer is walking perpendicular to a vertical surface) and sometimes of a rodent or burrowing mammal (when the 'path' becomes a cross section of the underground).

Singing animals? Avoiding Disney

Lucy Crowe (Vixen) and Sergei Leiferkus (Forester) © Bill Cooper | Glyndebourne (2012)
Lucy Crowe (Vixen) and Sergei Leiferkus (Forester)
© Bill Cooper | Glyndebourne (2012)
Presenting singing animals on stage is always a challenge. Still deliberately veered away from a ‘Disneyfied’ animal kingdom. “Janáček’s animals – as in the cartoon strip they are drawn from – take on the attributes of humans: they express conflict, love, lust and rebellion, they gossip and complain. Above all, as mentioned above, the Vixen is fuelled by Janáček’s enduring infatuation with Kamila. Though she wasn’t a Gypsy, he seemed to imbue her with his idea of one living at that time: concerned (like the vixen) more with seasons and survival than social mores. A narrow and romanticised portrayal it might be, but it sparked Janáček’s imagination and something of the spirit of this preoccupation has found its way into our production as we draw, for inspiration, on the nomadic people of Europe struggling to survive.

“It's this struggle to survive that has also been key to how we tell the story of the animals. The essence of every animal in the wild is expressed through the tools they need for that survival: a fox or a badger has a killer’s jaw and since humans do not have teeth that can tear into flesh and bone, our foxes adopt the human equivalent – lethal knives; so numerous are the uses of a fox’s tail and since it reflects every emotional state, the foxes in our production hold their ‘tails’ in their hands, alive and receptive to every feeling; starlings need to flock to confuse their prey – we (humans) cannot fly but we can flock; dragonflies must stun and shimmer in order to find a mate before they die in a day – this is conveyed by the dance. The pitiful domestic animals by contrast are enslaved and prey to the whim of their master or in the case of the hens an attractive comb is vital to ensure her place in the pecking order.

Dragonflies © Bill Cooper | Glyndebourne (2012)
© Bill Cooper | Glyndebourne (2012)
In this production, dancers are used, almost as doubles. What was the thinking for using dancers in this way? “The dancers allow an extra dimension when the score calls for the splendour or virtuosity of a wedding dance or the dragonflies courtship or when an animal is fleeing for its life. They can express the freedom and ferocity of the forest differently to the singers. They embody a zest and passion that complements the singers. And they can tackle the physical challenges of the set in a way that the singers can't. The singers need the conductor in their sightline at all times if they are to convey vocally the competing calls, buzzing, breaths, bird song and laments of Janáček's forest. The score is never at rest. Many singers love to challenge themselves physically but communicating vocally is obviously a priority. Some singers (increasingly more) like Christopher Purves or Ana Maria Martinez (who starred in Still’s production of Rusalka) naturally have both, always a joy for directors. In terms of doubling: being in a harness in order to descend a vertical drop might stretch a singer's scope. I imagine that many would embrace the challenge, however there is only one day set aside to rehearse the harnessed and flown elements and if you've never been in a harness before, the bruising restricts you to little more than working for 20 minutes at a time. Dancers are more familiar with these particular constraints!

Adrian Thompson (The Schoolmaster) © Bill Cooper | Glyndebourne (2012)
Adrian Thompson (The Schoolmaster)
© Bill Cooper | Glyndebourne (2012)
Did Still deliberately have the Schoolmaster resemble Janáček himself, I suggest, or was that just me?!

“Just you, but now you mention it... This year he's played by witty Colin Judson. I think the three old men in the opera each probably carry something of Janáček's torment.”

The rest of the cast assembled for this revival is very strong. Elena Tsallagova takes on the Vixen, a role she has sung widely abroad. “She's so surprising and empathetic," enthuses the director. "She's brilliantly nuanced vocally and psychologically – a vital skill for communicating the many faceted Vixen. Christopher Purves has such emotional weight and character and both are utterly committed performers. I can’t wait to see how the Forester and Vixen clash.”

Why Czech operas?

Rusalka was Still’s first operatic production, also at Glyndebourne. What is it about these operas – and Czech opera in general – that appeals to her? “Hmm good question. I'm not sure if it's the specifically Czech 'something' that appeals to me. I think it's that both Vixen and Rusalka absorb ideas about the natural world and our uneasy relationship to it, much in the same way that visual art, fiction and theatre from the fin de siècle period has often absorbed a kind of love of land (as opposed to love of country – it's not a nationalistic interpretation I'm interested in) and a sense that the our environment mirrors something of our spirit. It translates as a love of life, a yearning (and failure) to somehow be better acquainted with life and the living and the extraordinary fact of the land we live in and share. Words can't express it. Music and story can.

“It's often suggested to me that I'm drawn to the operas because of their roots in folk or fairy tales, but actually Vixen is a sort of modernist experiment in non dramatic opera writing. It promises a woodland adventure but our expectations are confounded when it turns out to be more an impressionistic experiment in communicating what it means to be alive, something the Vitalists of Czech literature during the rise of European modernism, were exploring. Rusalka on the other hand observes a more traditional three act narrative structure (the libretto was written by the playwright Kvapil) and leans on a fairytale aesthetic, borrowing characters from Czech folklore but it doesn't quite share the timelessness of fairy tales. Rusalka is very much a creature of her time: punished and silenced for daring to have sexual feelings and for pursuing her desires. The opera explores the fury and ardour of being ensnared, deceived, manipulated by the world whereas in The Cunning Little Vixen, Bystrouska the vixen calls the shots and mocks the men who try to ensnare her. So much change in only 20 years! Probably it’s that that I'm drawn to: the extraordinary period of change between 1900 and 1925.

Both Janáček and Dvořák explore the human experience through the bodies of animals or non humans. It's as if animals and mythical characters communicate the uncanny, the super unsayable aspects of being a human, an idea probably stemming from the beginning of storytelling time: animals take us closer to our primitive selves.”


Melly Still’s production of The Cunning Little Vixen opens at Glyndebourne on 12th June 2016.

Article sponsored by Glyndebourne Festival Opera.