If I were to describe Janáček's late opera The Cunning Little Vixen as a bit of a one-off, I could be accused of severe understatement. It's the only opera in the mainstream repertoire to be based on a cartoon strip, it mixes animals and humans at will and it incorporates dance and mime routines, all against the backdrop of the setting of ancient forest so beloved by middle European romantics. Although it anthropomorphises the animals, it isn't a fairy tale: rather, it's an episodic creature that tries to give a sense of nature, veering between comedy, romance and tragedy as it does so.

The wedding of Fox and Vixen © Bill Cooper
The wedding of Fox and Vixen
© Bill Cooper

All this makes it a "challenging" work to set. In the interval chatter at Glyndebourne's new production, directed by Melly Still, opinions seemed to be polarised about the staging. Personally, I thought it was fantastic, in both senses of the word; this is the third time I've seen sets by Tom Pye, and I'm turning into a major fan. His vixen's lair is set in the base of a giant tree which dominates the stage; behind the tree lies a hillside into which is cut a zig-zagged slide reminiscent of a bobsleigh run. Different animals slither or roll down the hill and the slide and they pop up, in and out of all manner of nooks and crannies on the stage, or appear in the tree. The animals are identified simply by objects they carry: the frogs carry pairs of frog eyes and a net (frogs catch insects); the mosquito carries a syringe and is quite drunk when he has taken blood from the forester; the woodpecker carries a hammer with which he hammers away at an anvil in the tree; the foxes each hold and wave luxuriant tailbrushes. Human dwellings appear out of nowhere, assembled in an instant. The cockerel struts amongst his harem of Folies-Bergère tart-like hens, clustering together and twittering across the stage in unstable high heels. The whole thing was beautiful and magical.

There's plenty of both beauty and magic in Janáček's music, as well as great variety. It was conducted with true Eastern European verve by Vladimir Jurowski, who brought out much quirkiness and humour from the score as well as its moments of intense lyricism, punctuated by some excellent woodwind playing. Vocally, the high point was the Act II duet between Emma Bell as the Fox and Lucy Crowe as the Vixen, where the two voices blended beautifully to provide a touching romance, in contrast to the preceding dreadfulness of the drunken humans. But the enthusiasm of the orchestral playing often rather took over from the singing: it was a rare moment when the voices were given some air and for the most part, the action and singing styles were fast and furious.

And therein lies my problem with this work: it all feels scattered and rushed, skipping from one scene to the next with little to unify it all. One suspects that Janáček did indeed have some underlying structure: there's obviously some juxtaposition between the vixen and the poacher's sweetheart Terynka (whom we never meet), there are obviously some meditations on the cycle of life. But there are so many different characters and the scenes are so disconnected from each other that I found it very difficult to follow any coherent thread, and I left rather unsatisfied by the opera as a whole.

This is a creditable production in most respects; it was decently sung and acted, well choreographed and I really loved the staging, but it didn't all come together to produce a coherent entity. I suspect that this is simply in the nature of the work, but it's the first time I've seen The Cunning Little Vixen and I'll reserve judgement as to whether there's more to be brought out by a different performance style.

This is also the first time I've reviewed a production at Glyndebourne, so I'll permit myself a few words about the experience, because, as their promotional material reminds one, this is an opera venue unlike any other. The opera house itself is a beautiful place, seating 1,200 in comfort and with extensive wood panelling that provides an excellent acoustic. But the glory of Glyndebourne is in the gardens, set around lakes and scattered with sculptures: a hot summer's day such as we had yesterday showed them off at their finest. I may have had my reservations about the opera, but the experience as a whole was still wonderful.