The close-up world of opera, with its ensembles and packed choral and orchestral groups, was not made for pandemics. But in 2021 Covid has prompted creativity. At Longborough Festival Opera, three productions are in the “Big Top”, a red circus tent fitted with a ground-level “pit” to one side, raked and distanced seating, and a raised stage in the round.

Julieth Lozano (Vixen)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

For Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, designed by Nate Gibson, the forest was represented by a solitary portable tree, occasional sprinklings of leaves by cast members and Jake Wiltshire’s effective lighting. Table and chairs appeared for interiors, and scenes were announced by titles chalked live onto a small blackboard (the cast includes a schoolteacher after all). David Pountney’s fine English translation was used, as were surtitles. Costumes avoided the “gorilla suits” that can afflict Vixen, with a fur stole doubling as Vixen's tail. Rooster and the doomed hens were striking with their scarlet trim, though Cricket’s batting pads might have confused foreign visitors in an era that had any. Both the bustling and the quieter moments in this bucolic yarn were clearly directed by Olivia Fuchs.

The skillful reduced orchestration by Jonathan Lyness (string quintet, solo winds, horn, trumpet, harp, percussion) inevitably impaired some familiar splendours, but it did enable the poetic and pastoral oboe and cor anglais solos (doubled by Victoria Brawn) to shine out. The sound was surprisingly satisfactory in general, but the Big Top was small enough for vocal and instrumental tuttis to become overloud at one or two moments. But when the score required it, piano playing and singing registered well, as in the tender first meeting between Vixen (Julieth Lozano) and her Golden Fox suitor (Frances Gregory), both very winning in stage manner and voice.

Frances Gregory (Fox)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

The men won still more of the vocal honours perhaps, with two fine inn scenes and poignant solos for each character. Harašta (Aaron Holmes) used his imposing baritone to show us a poacher accustomed to singing aloud in the woods, while tenor Gabriel Seawright was touching as the self-pitying drunken schoolmaster. Kieran Rayner drew on his three previous productions in his role to present the Forester with vocal authority and stage presence. All three (plus the Priest, sung by David Howes) share a love for Terynka, who never appears, but the score and Fuchs’ direction of the males’ longings vividly evoked the absent gypsy girl.

Frances Gregory (Fox) and Kieran Rayner (Forester)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

This is Longborough’s Emerging Artists production and the young singers, along with the Longborough Youth Chorus of local children, clearly relished working on an ensemble piece with no single dominating role. Musically it was very good indeed, with conductor Justin Brown drawing idiomatic phrasing from his 13 players, deploying those characteristic folk-derived rhythmic tics and short lyrical motifs tightly within a longer line that glowed through the final scene of a splendid Act 3. Small wonder the composer asked for that passage, gloriously celebrating the renewal of the life cycle, to be performed at his funeral.

****1