“Never work with children or animals,” goes the old showbiz adage coined by WC Fields. But what when the children are the animals? Stephen Barlow’s new staging of The Cunning Little Vixen for Opera Holland Park boasts more children than chorus members, swaying their windsock kites in their hi-vis jackets and face masks as dragonflies, grasshoppers, butterflies and frog (“clammy little bugger”) during the woodland scenes that frame Janáček’s drama. In a production short on visual spectacle, they very nearly steal the show, the closing paean to nature as the seasons turn another cycle bringing a lump to the throat.

Jennifer France (Terynka) and children's chorus
© Ali Wright

Vixen is an opera completely at home in Holland Park. In previous seasons, I’ve spotted the occasional fox while leaving the grounds after a show. Owls and woodpeckers call the park home, but I’m not sure many badgers frequent the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Peacocks are the most high profile (and voluble) residents… absent in Janáček’s libretto, but mentioned here thanks to a deft tweak to Norman Tucker’s English translation. 

Despite being based on a cartoon strip, titled Liška Bystrouška which was serialised in a Prague daily newspaper, Vixen is no Disney fairy tale. Barlow’s spare production eschews cuteness for the most part – the seasons turn, animals die. Nature just gets on with it, while the humans morosely reflect on their past, full of regrets and what-might-have-beens. Andrew D. Edwards’ set is minimal – a tree stump, a single sunflower and a recycling bin which is, appropriately, recycled through the evening as badger’s sett and tavern bar (complete with London Pride beer pump). Among Barlow’s contemporary touches, Julia Sporsén’s Fox courts Jennifer France’s Vixen Sharp-Ears by fetching her breakfast from Pret, and Badger is evicted when squirted with a water pistol by the Vixen to mark her new territory.

Jennifer France (Vixen)
© Ali Wright

Costuming includes some headdresses or masks to help identify the animals. Sharp-Ears wears red dreadlocks and orange tights, but sports a bushy brush my local vixen would covet. Here, as in most productions, Badger doubles as the Parson, Mosquito as the Schoolmaster, so Barlow also has France double as the silent seductress Terynka, object of affection – and lust – among the village men, even turning up at the tavern for a swift half pint.

Julia Sporsén (Fox), Jennifer France (Vixen) and chorus of sunflowers
© Ali Wright

The stage is so bare that two dozen audience members flank the action. (I desperately wanted them to turn out to be extra chorus members for the Act 2 finale’s shotgun wedding, reinforcing the nine singing sunflowers, but that wish was not to be.) Most of the action takes place on the walkway in front of the orchestra, a pared-back City of London Sinfonia conducted by Jessica Cottis. Cast and chorus effect swift scene changes. Jonathan Dove’s excellent orchestral reduction (20 players here) includes a wheezing accordion that adds an earthy folk touch. Cottis conducted a bright, focused reading, but despite the small ensemble, there were audibility problems, the singers dipping in and out of range, sometimes swamped by the sound, sometimes simply facing the wrong direction. Surtitles proved necessary.

Grant Doyle (Forester)
© Ali Wright

Jennifer France was an excellent Vixen, fearless in vocal attack (top notes ping) and full of energy. Janáček doesn’t give her an aria, as such, but the reflective moment where she wonders if she really is as lovely as Fox has just declared was full of trembling wonder. France was well matched by Julia Sporsén’s fine Fox, entwined in ecstatic duet before further ecstasies took place beneath a picnic rug. Grant Doyle’s Forester was testy and gnarled, a little parched at the top of his baritone, while Ashley Riches was a classy step-in as the poacher Harasta. John Savournin (Badger/Parson) and Charne Rochford (Mosquito/Schoolmaster) contributed characterfully to a solid ensemble that will only grow in confidence as the run settles.  

As the seasons turn, lighting designer Rory Beaton casts a glowing sunset on Holland House which fades into twilight blue as the Forester, surrounded by fireflies and frogs, finds peace, the spirit of our Vixen watching over him, a lovely closing touch.