The dichotomy between man and nature is at the heart of English National Opera’s new production of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen. On the night of the intended premiere, first blood went to nature courtesy of Storm Eunice, which kept the stage curtain firmly down. The winds were still blowing a couple of days later, but an expectant audience braved the squall to see what director Jamie Manton would make of this comic-strip inspired gem.

Sally Matthews (Vixen) and Pumeza Matshikiza (Fox)
© Clive Barda

Expectations in a house with a fine Janáček tradition were high, and although some of Manton’s ideas were hit and miss, a combination of finely choreographed spectacle and excellent musicianship made this a rewarding experience. Designer Tom Scutt’s set is basically sawmill-chic: piles of logs loom and rotate around a bland large warehouse style interior. Here, the colour of nature has, at first sight, been subverted to the industrialising force of drab mankind, order over chaos. Yet within minutes that sense of structure was subverted by a mass of creatures swarming the stage, an iridescent swirl scampering in no discernible pattern – nature reclaiming its space. A vertical scroll dominates the centre of the stage on which sketches and flashes of colour cascade, the most powerful of which were dozens of tally marks as our titular heroine goes from cub to vixen – a symbol of her boredom and imprisonment in the television-dominated living room of the Forester – and the measuring lines, a suggestion of families celebrating the growth of children, so very poignant here for the absence of that happiness. Manton leans into the idea of the influence of the past on the present and the evolution of the self. Young versions of the Forester and the Vixen periodically appear; we are asked to question who has remained true to their younger self.

Claire Barnett-Jones (Lapák) and Sally Matthews (Vixen)
© Clive Barda

The rather trendy translation – we know that it’s going to be a modern production when words like “pissed” are shouted at – is not always an advantage, and a slight tendency towards the ideological at times hinders the production. (Vixen here is virtually a stereotype of a liberal icon). On the whole, though, Manton’s production is a lively affair and at its best in ensemble moments: the regiment of hens overseen by a gaudy general cockerel and his vainglorious sergeant-major hen; the wedding scene at the end of Act 2 as cubs come tumbling onto a packed and glowing stage; the return to chaos at the end of Act 3 as the creatures retake the sawmill.

ENO assembled an excellent cast, with even the smaller roles performed to a high standard. A triumvirate of soloists stood out for quality of singing. Our eponymous Vixen was sung by Sally Matthews, whose every expression captured the eye: boredom, misery, vicious mirth, a joy turning to increasing panic as her leash of cubs grew ever larger. Matthews gave a generous vocal performance, bright and secure at the top of the voice with only patches of occlusion in the diction. Pumeza Matshikiza was the ideal complement to Matthews as Fox, her voice higher in tannin and full of energy. In contrast to the movements of these lithe and scampering characters was the splendidly stolid Lester Lynch as the Forester; his commanding baritone voice was well articulated and even in tone, registers well integrated, and in the finale as lyrical as one would have wished. Lynch brought real depth and sympathy to a role that sometimes lacks dimension.

Lester Lynch (Forester)
© Clive Barda

Among the supporting cast, special mention should go to Claire Barnett-Jones’ lumbering popcorn-stuffing Dog, a mass of fur and appetite who stole the stage at every movement. Clive Bayley and Alan Oke’s two old gits, the Priest and the Schoolmaster respectively, were deftly sung and well portrayed. In the pit, Martyn Brabbins led the ENO Orchestra in a dynamic reading of the score. If not authentically Janáčekian, it still packed plenty of punch and Brabbins was particular in giving space for the woodwind to breathe – so essential in this work. The chorus was on good form, and particular credit should be given to the assorted children on stage who sang and performed with the utmost professionalism.