Seventy years before Elton John's “The Circle of Life” graced The Lion King, Leoš Janáček celebrated nature's cycle in The Cunning Little Vixen. His inspiration was drawn from a comic strip in the newspaper Lidové noviny, depicting the adventures of Vixen Sharp-Ears outwitting the forester. Yet the opera grapples with thorny issues of death and renewal which a cutesy Disney staging can diminish. Melly Still, returning to revive her 2012 staging at Glyndebourne, lays nature bare. Cartoonish, but never sentimental, it presents Vixen red in tooth and claw, contrasting the animals' freedom of spirit with the humans' resignation about ageing.

Dancers © Richard Hubert Smith
Dancers
© Richard Hubert Smith

At the centre of Tom Pye's steeply raked set is a rickety tree, helping chart the turning of the seasons. Beyond this tree is a winding path doubling as a burrow down which dancers (substituting for singers) abseil to give what appears to the audience as an aerial view, with its clever skewing of perspective. Costumes are unsentimental to the point that you’d be hard pushed, in some cases, to identify the animals being represented.

Elena Tsallagova (Vixen) © Richard Hubert Smith
Elena Tsallagova (Vixen)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Vixen, like her mother (played by a dancer here), is a free spirit dressed in hippy clothes and flame-haired dreadlocks. Vixen and her Fox carry their brushes, using them as expressive extensions of their characters and the dancers, especially the dragonflies, make full use of the set’s vertiginous rake. The dog is a scruffy layabout, the chickens are repressed brothel workers clucking around a Napoleonic cockerel, and the mosquito carries a large syringe. Paule Constable’s lighting is effective, especially the scene where fireflies are whirring and the verdant scene bristles to life.

The action has a vibrant, almost raucous quality. The knockabout action and profusion of blood, such as the carnage Vixen causes in the hen coop (resulting in a crass ‘headless chicken’ gag) doesn’t always sit well against Janacek’s magical score and the stage occasionally has a cluttered feel. Key moments such as the shooting of Vixen are well handled and the menagerie of children involved are well marshalled. The director has made a few revisions for this revival. In “Vixen's Dream”, for example, there are fewer dancer doubles and Elena Tsallagova (Sharp-Ears) even becomes involved, caught in a tender clinch with the Forester before being supported in a neatly turned somersault. It has a tighter, coherent feel and is aided by stronger casting second time around.

Elena Tsallagova (Vixen) and Alžběta Poláčková (Fox) © Richard Hubert Smith
Elena Tsallagova (Vixen) and Alžběta Poláčková (Fox)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Tsallagova is a sassy, pert Vixen. There was a twinkle in her expressive eyes during her first encounter with Alžběta Poláčková's swaggering Fox and her bell-like soprano chimed confidently. Poláčková herself regularly sings Vixen in Prague, and the two sopranos intertwined vocal lines most beautifully in their vulpine love duet. Christopher Purves was an effectively gruff and grumpy Forester, although I rather missed Sergei Leiferkus' flinty baritone here. Purves captured the Forester’s epiphany at the opera’s pantheistic close most beautifully, his dancer double 'spirit' taking leave of his body to ascend the winding burrow.

Christopher Purves (Forester) © Richard Hubert Smith
Christopher Purves (Forester)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The roles of the Parson/ Badger and the Schoolmaster/ Mosquito, as often, are doubled. Alexander Vassiliev was slightly underpowered as the Badger, with Rasputin locks and beard, but Colin Judson made for a touching, lovelorn Schoolmaster, especially in the penultimate scene, his regret at losing Terynka to the poacher Harasta rather poignant. His Schoolmaster looks a little like the elderly Janáček himself and this brings his relationship with the Vixen and Terynka into focus, given the composer's infatuation with Kamilla Stösslová. Minor roles were confidently taken, especially Martha Fontanals-Simmons as a plum-toned, flea-infested Dog.

Young Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša lovingly coaxed every growl, chirrup and rustle from Janáček's shimmering score, the London Philharmonic Orchestra on pearly form. Foxes scamper beyond the ha-ha at Glyndebourne, delighting picnickers. For earthier foxy action, Still's Vixen revival hits the spot.