Tooth and Claw

Alexandra Coghlan enjoys two operas wrestling with the follies of old age.

New Statesman
A production of Verdi's comedic opera Falstaff in 1961 (Photo: Getty Images)

The Cunning Little Vixen/Falstaff, Glyndebourne/Royal Opera House, London WC2

Two weeks, two celebrated operas of old age. Janácek’s folk fable The Cunning Little Vixen may have been just the first effort in a rich summer of creativity that also yielded The Makropulos Case and From the House of the Dead, but Falstaff was to be Verdi’s final opera – the late, great comedy he had planned all his life.

Janácek’s contemplative Forester and Verdi’s bibulous and blustering Sir John Falstaff share little beyond their forest homes, but in two new productions from Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera they offer contrasting and surprisingly complementary meditations on the cycles of love, life and nature.

In the director Robert Carsen’s latest vision, we discover Falstaff among stained pillows and oak panelling, the wine-stained corpses of endless room-service trolleys strewn about him. The transformation of the Garter Inn into a fussily overdone country hotel of the 1950s (all hunting prints, tartan upholstery and cocktails with compulsory maraschino cherry) is a slick one, lending itself to the sitcom-style high jinks of the petty criminals Bardolph and Pistol (Alasdair Elliott and Lukas Jakobski), and the Merry Wives, naturally, who come complete with a gem of a kitsch-en – a symphony of pastels and gadgetry.

Yet even though the comedy feels as freshly laundered as the unfortunate Falstaff, lively through a vaudeville routine for “Va’, vecchio John” and a gloriously chaotic take on the washing-basket episode, the opera’s crisp, cruel wit and the pathos of this ageing roué get a little lost.
Ambrogio Maestri’s too straightforwardly good-humoured Sir John (warm of tone and aways expressive, yet upstaged by Rupert the horse in his pivotal Act III aria) is partly to blame, but Carsen’s transposition, too, gets lost in period detail. Crucially he fails to bridge the sinister forest pageantry and mock-stern fugue of the closing scenes with the blowsy humour of the opening, leaving us a little uncertain how to treat the opera’s conclusion that “All the world is folly, and man but a jester”.

A strong supporting cast goes a long way towards masking any such lack. Ana Maria Mar­tínez makes for a poised and piquant Alice,
deploying her voice for character rather than loveliness, and is amply (in every sense) supported by Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Mistress Quickly, whose forceful seduction of Sir John threatens at times to take the plot in an entirely new direction. Amanda Forsythe’s Nannetta rings out silver above Verdi’s dense ensembles, though it risks exposing the weaker Joel Prieto (Fenton) in the love duets. Although its origins lie in a comic strip, The Cunning Little Vixen is hardly a bedtime story.

It is not enough that Janácek’s foxy heroine has red hair; tooth and claw must follow suit if the careful dramatic balance of this miniature epic – tragedy jostling with exuberant joy, brutality with tenderness – is not to be distorted. In Melly Still’s production at Glyndebourne, man and nature exist in a harmony that has its enchantments but is never precious or cute.

A Hockneyesque winding path weaves up over the back of the set, creating a playful, persistent trick of perspective that pays homage
to the story’s two-dimensional origins. In the centre of the stage a naive, stylised tree houses Janácek’s menagerie of animals, neatly displaying by turns spring blossom, bare winter branches, even a snowfall.

With life force and colour, Vladimir Jurow­ski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the pit almost do away with the need for visuals. Their brisk folk gestures and sharp rhythmic articulation achieve a clarity that Maxine Doyle’s choreography sadly lacks, cluttering the stage with noisy happenings and muddying Janácek’s vividly programmatic score. A little more faith in the music would serve this production well, even without the virtuoso efforts of the LPO to support it.

Lucy Crowe’s Vixen is vocally assured and has a welcome touch of the gypsy about her. She is a tough, rangy creature and her passions are initially as violent as they are sexually urgent after her encounter with the Fox (a glowing-voiced Emma Bell). Their lust-duet is a high point. And the Vixen’s pitiless despatch of the chickens (styled here in an inspired gesture as floozies in fishnets, all jerky high-heeled strut and stupidity) makes for a splendid set piece.

The human beings fare less well in Still’s hands. Identities blur and even the beloved Terynka (the Vixen’s two-legged double) dissolves into the bustling peasant scene. But strong singing comes from William Dazeley’s Harašta, and Sergei Leiferkus as the Forester makes up in character and presence what he now lacks in vocal beauty.

Janácek’s vision of wisdom in old age and Verdi’s portrait of ageing folly may diverge in their dramatic journeys, but they come together in the redemptive possibilities that both operas find in nature, with her rhythms of celebration, death and renewal. They are comedies with claws, each demanding its ritual sacrifice of blood and cruelty to complete its spell and earn its sweet reward. It’s a pagan payment that Glyndebourne’s Vixen is more than happy to make, leaving the Royal Opera’s Falstaff still poised indecisively on the brink, unable as yet to add talons to the horns that triumphantly crown the hero’s head.

“The Cunning Little Vixen” is at Glyndebourne, Lewes, East Sussex, until 28 June. Details: glyndebourne.com