It was The Cunning Little Vixen that put a university chum right off Janáček. He could not overcome the memory of his cohabitant, at the time, performing in the chorus of a production, repeatedly singing the line “I’m laying an egg” at unsociable hours. Janáček’s ‘forest opera’ with its opportunities for comedy and ambiguity is much loved by schools and conservatoires; a natural choice for the Royal College of Music’s first opera of the season.

Harriet Eyley (Vixen) © Chris Christodoulou
Harriet Eyley (Vixen)
© Chris Christodoulou

Daniel Slater’s production didn’t wholly convince, with a vision that on occasion seemed to be striving for some deeper message about cruelty, segregation and maltreatment of women, but then reverted back to slapstick comedy (marginally over-the-top sex scenes). The inn scene of Act 2, in particular, struggled to find any dramatic vitality and was the only point at which the performance dragged. Alex Berry’s set design was a thing of beauty though, reminiscent of a beer barrel with its large circular design, wide at the front and tapering off at the back with numerous screens inserted and removed to reduce or expand the stage. Choreography was generally strong and the production benefited from the interpretative dance of Azzura Caccetta and Francesco Mangiacasale representing Vixen and the Forester respectively, performing during the orchestral interludes. The stand out scene was that delightful moment at the end of Act 2, a joyous wedding with the woodland creatures gathered around before the Vixen disappeared and from behind closed doors a stream of merry cubs emerged to the initial delight and then slight concern of Fox. Costumes were basic; the ‘humans’ in standard peasant garb, the ‘animals’ in costumes ranging from standard clothing – the Vixen in red dress and brown fur coat for example – to the slightly more bestial costumes of the Cock and the woodland creatures.

Harriet Eyley (Vixen) and Ida Ränzlöv (Fox) © Chris Christodoulou
Harriet Eyley (Vixen) and Ida Ränzlöv (Fox)
© Chris Christodoulou

The musical highlight of the evening was from Michael Rosewell and the RCM Opera Orchestra who revelled in the lush, idiosyncratic language of Janáček, the violins silvery and the woodwind fleet. There was a sense of playfulness in their tone and pacing was well-judged. All that was wanting was a touch more sympathy with the singers, one or two of whom were occasionally overwhelmed. Of the cast, Harriet Eyley gave a sparky performance as Vixen, subversive in the farmyard and touching as she discovered first love. She was generous with her higher register and there’s clear technique behind her singing, but diction was a problem; singing in the vernacular without subtitles requires total clarity and much of her singing was occluded.

Kieran Rayner (Forester) © Chris Christodoulou
Kieran Rayner (Forester)
© Chris Christodoulou

Kieran Rayner, singing the Forester, is one to watch. Of all the cast, he drew the most from the text, the manner in which he dispatched his final aria suggesting, with its intimacy, expression and phrasing, that he is a strong Lieder recitalist in the making. Diction was entirely clear, registers were integrated and his shading of the libretto strong. Christian Adolph was a strong Harašta, showing a stout and rolling bass with sound articulation. Acting was somewhat stolid, but there isn’t a great deal that can be done with the part.

Richard Pinkstone (Schoolmaster) © Chris Christodoulou
Richard Pinkstone (Schoolmaster)
© Chris Christodoulou

Ida Ränzlöv, singing the Fox, has a big voice with bags of charisma, and despite again somewhat patchy diction, she was a jovial presence on stage. In the minor roles, Catriona Hewitson threw herself, thrusting and swaggering away, into the role of the Cock and Josephine Goddard was a sour spiteful Forester’s wife. The RCM Chorus threw themselves into their woodland parts with characteristic gusto and melody; full credit to the brigade of hens who twitched and fussed most enthusiastically, and yes, laid copious quantities of eggs.