Simon Rattle has over recent years established himself as something like the Staatsoper’s resident Janáček conductor here in Berlin, having been at the helm of performances of both From the House of the Dead and Kátya Kabanová during that company’s stint at the Schillertheater. Here, though, was a chance to hear him put his own orchestra – or one of them, at least – through its paces with the work that is generally agreed to have put the Czech composer on the map in Germany.

Simon Rattle and fox cubs © Monika Rittershaus
Simon Rattle and fox cubs
© Monika Rittershaus

Sixty-one years after Walter Felsenstein’s breakthrough production of The Cunning Little Vixen at the Komische Oper, the opera became the latest work to get a Peter Sellars semi-staging as part of Rattle’s long-running collaboration with the veteran director. Jánaček’s opera certainly represents something of a departure, thematically, from those pieces – less playful, more ritualistic – generally chosen for their previous work together.

The orchestra was squeezed back on the stage to allow for a small raised playing area at the front, while a handful of large television screens were dotted around to the side and behind. Principals were dressed in regulation casual black, and the screens offered atmosphere, commentary, or, with plodding literalism, images of objects that were missing as stage props.

As far as Sellars’s interpretation goes, he placed the emphasis firmly on Gerald Finley’s Forester, who appears broken and depressive at the start, remains so throughout, and finds some sort of happiness only at the very end. Finley’s performance was magnificent, characteristically intelligent and sung with moving sensitivity and warmth. But Sellars has him indulging in some very heavy petting with the Vixen at their first encounter – copulating dragonflies on the TVs, which return the Fox and Vixen’s love scene, suggest even more – and on a short fuse and obsessive throughout.

Lucy Crowe (Vixen) and Gerald Finley (Forester) © Monika Rittershaus
Lucy Crowe (Vixen) and Gerald Finley (Forester)
© Monika Rittershaus

We get mixed messages from what we see on stage and on screen constantly, with a worrying inconsistency of concept and tone, not to mention frequent touches of glibness. The Cricket and Grasshoper disco-dance to their mobile phones, and the climax of Act 2 sees the chorus indulging in similarly jarring choreography. The score’s folk music quotations are accompanied, with clunking obviousness, by footage of folk dancers; other video material tells us we’re in an urban environment, the Forester living in a smart apartment, he and his chums going drinking in a trendy bar.

The aim in weaving together these worlds is, presumably, to create a sense of universality. The effect, though, is one of confusion: the line between man and beast so delicately and movingly blurred by Janáček is removed, to little gain; and we lose the all-important sense of the essential incompatibility of human and animal life-cycles, whose different-sized gears keep the work’s emotional machine running. Conceptually it’s too open-ended and non-committal, while as a spectacle it can’t help feeling provisional, even amateurish – semi-staged and half-baked.

Certainly the musical performance deserved more. At the heart of it all, unsurprisingly, was some fabulous playing. This orchestra’s forest soundscapes are more about glinting shards of light than fragrant mossy banks, perhaps, but one will rarely hear this glorious score better played. Rattle conducts it with unerring skill and barely concealed adoration, tracing its winding filigree with care and unleashing climaxes of overwhelming shimmering, dewy beauty.

Angela Denoke (Fox) and Lucy Crowe (Vixen) © Monika Rittershaus
Angela Denoke (Fox) and Lucy Crowe (Vixen)
© Monika Rittershaus

Lucy Crowe’s Vixen is vividly, compellingly acted, and she sings the part with an affecting, wide-eyed abandon, even if the top of the voice has lost some of its polish. In isolation, her scenes with Finley’s Forester achieved an undeniable power, with Paulina Malefane, playing his wife, barely getting a look in. Hanno Müller-Brachmann makes for a rugged Hárašta, wandering in from the further reaches of the Philharmonie; Burkhard Ulrich is outstanding in his various roles and Willard White a mellow presence doubling up as the Badger and Priest. Anna Lapkovskaja stood out in her brief turn as Lapák, and I wondered whether she wouldn’t have made a more persuasive fox than the somewhat hooty-sounding Angela Denoke.

There was fine work from the Vocalconsort Berlin, and I have nothing but praise for the Vokalhelden des Education-Programms, who lived up to their billing in the various children’s roles. But while they were obviously amplified – a reasonable decision in the circumstances – there seemed also to be intermittent amplification of the other voices too, whether by accident or design, which occasionally led to blurring of the sonic picture. It could do nothing, however, to detract from the fact that it was the musical performance here, not Sellars's muddy contribution, that offered all the clarity and conviction.