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Tooth and claw

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

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 productions from Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera they have offered contrasting and surprisingly complementary meditations on the cycles of love, life and nature.

In the director Robert Carsen’s latest vision (ended 30 May), we discovered 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) was slick, 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 came complete with a gem of a kitsch-en – a symphony of pastels and gadgetry.

Yet even though the comedy felt 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 old roué were 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) was partly to blame, but Carsen’s transposition, too, got lost in period detail. Crucially he failed 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 went a long way towards masking any such lack. Ana Maria Mar­tínez made for a poised and piquant Alice,
deploying her voice for character rather than loveliness, and was amply (in every sense) supported by Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Mistress Quickly, whose forceful seduction of Sir John threatened at times to take the plot in an entirely new direction. Amanda Forsythe’s Nannetta rang out silver above Verdi’s dense ensembles, though it risked 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:

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, A-Z of Iran

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis