The Cunning Little Vixen may well be the perfect country house opera. Its invocations of nature, and its cast of animals, insects and birds make it an elegant fit for rural performance settings. As the first half of this performance drew to a close, the setting sun streamed light across the stage through the glass sides of Garsington’s pavilion venue and a lone blackbird sang along, perfectly complementing Janáček’s score.

Claire Booth (Vixen) © Clive Barda
Claire Booth (Vixen)
© Clive Barda

All of which gave director Daniel Slater considerable latitude in how he presented the composer’s fairytale world. The designs, by Robert Innes Hopkins, are stylised, and make few concessions to realism, or to the work’s intractable issues of scale. The animal costumes make inventive use of kitchen utensils – a pair of whisks for wings, a funnel for a proboscis – and don’t shy away from cliché, particularly with the rubber gloves for coxcombs. But it is all done with conviction, and it all fits together well. Without the luxury of a proscenium, a fly tower, or even wings, the scenery is necessarily simple, just a symmetrical pair of L-shaped walls, representing the tavern interior on one side and rotating to reveal a more ambiguous backdrop behind, an assembly of ladders, steps, and holes that serve effectively as forest, chicken coop and warren as required.

Slater gives a dynamic presentation of the story, drawing energetic performances from each of the singers (bar the badger perhaps) and making full use of the large performing space. He fully exploits the work’s comedy potential. The scene in the chicken coop is particularly strong here, the flock seemingly modelled on that in Chicken Run, but with each of them knitting, from which they only look up occasionally when the action warrants their attention, staring and clucking suspiciously at the protagonists.

Claire Booth (Vixen) and Garsington hens © Clive Barda
Claire Booth (Vixen) and Garsington hens
© Clive Barda

The distinctiveness of this production rests on a single interpretive indulgence - but it’s an impressive one that adds much depth. At key moments, the Vixen and the Forester are doubled onstage by mute dancers – Chiara Vinci and Jamie Higgins respectively. They underline the otherwise implicit erotic dimension of the relationship, especially when they first meet in Act I. And then in Act III, when the Vixen is shot and the Forester finds her body, they return to add a very Freudian sex-and-death angle to the closing scenes. Quite disturbing in some ways, but not to the point of overpowering Slater’s otherwise direct and upbeat reading.

Grant Doyle (Forester) © Clive Barda
Grant Doyle (Forester)
© Clive Barda

Despite a castsheet that runs to almost a page, the opera relies primarily on its two leads, here Grant Doyle as the Forester and Claire Booth as the Vixen. Both are young (Doyle surprisingly so for the part), but both have agile and characterful voices. The venue here is small, so no great muscularity of vocal technique is required. Even so, Doyle has a particularly impressive musical presence, is seemingly unfazed by the wide tessitura, and gives as much emotion as the part requires, especially in the tricky final scene, which succeeds spectacularly, largely due to his contribution. Booth has a smaller voice, but one with even more variety of colour and expression. Her performance is agile and seductive, and she always dominates proceedings, even in the large ensembles. Good support from the rest of the large cast, with no significant weak links. The most impressive performance among the smaller roles is from Joshua Bloom as Harašta the poacher. His is a rich bass voice that responds well to the Janáček’s vocal style in the lower registers.

Conductor Garry Walker leads a proficient, no-nonsense account of the score, pacing effectively for the narrative and but also pulling back occasionally for the more reflective movements, particularly the very effective ending, for which he too deserves much credit. The “Garsington Orchestra” is good, although not quite the last word in refinement or precision. It is also on the small side, and would benefit from another few desks of strings. But, again, the small venue, with admirably clear acoustics, compensates much.

Only one major grumble – the placement of the interval, half way through the second act, before the scene where the Vixen meets the Fox. Presumably, this was to ensure it stayed light until the end of the dinner interval. True enough, the second act is bitty, and doesn’t necessarily cohere, even when performed as a whole. But in this configuration, the spectacular Act II finale comes about 20 minutes into the second half, and disturbs the fragile dramatic balance of the final act that follows. And that’s the best part of the opera, fully deserving of such protections. Otherwise, a very satisfying evening, with Janáček’s score presented in all its rustic glory: seductive, engaging and with a sense of intimacy that’s particularly appropriate to this venue.