vixen and chickens

Aoife Miskelly as the captured Vixen with Michael Clifton Thompson as the Cockerel with his soon to be late hens.

Pictures: Richard Hubert Smith

The Cunning Little Vixen

Welsh National Opera


On one hand it is a whimsical bucolic folk tale, an everyday story of country folk and woodland creatures, on the other it is a fable with political overtones, such as when the oh so comfortable Badger tells the “flea infested vixen” in no uncertain terms to go away.

This is a respectable area he tells her, in that superior air seen in the more privileged mammal in the more exclusive setts, only to be told: “Being rich does not make you respectable!” – it also doesn’t make you safe as the vixen liberates his comfortable home – chucking out into the snow and moving herself in as the less fortune creatures chant plutocrat at the departing brock played by Lawrence Cole.

And there is a moment when the Vixen and forest creatures are struggling for food and she cries “How can mankind be so greedy, stuffing themselves with food and I am hungry”. A cry that can mean many things in many ways.

We open though with the vixen cub playing and chasing a frog with both running into a rather bluff forester who captures her as a pet – and we then find the cub as a beautiful young vixen tied up in a yard with the forester’s old dog, sung by Helen Greenaway, who is bemoaning her life without sex.

Our vixen is also inexperienced in this area, but she knows what she has seen and heard in the forest . . . I bet you didn’t know starlings were right old gossips and the young ones are right old slappers. That gives you something to think about when you fill the bird feeders.


Peter Van Hulle as the Schoolmaster and Claudio Otelli as the Forester

The forester, sung by Austrian Claudio Otelli with his rich bass-baritone, is none too bright, putting a flock of chickens in with the fox and dog – which sees the fox, desperate to escape, trying to lead a female rebellion, pleading with the hens to overthrow their pompous leader a “right-wing conservative” cock – and much as I am tempted to drift into contemporary comment, we will leave that one there.

It is a lovely performance from Michael Clifton-Thompson as the cockerel and his hens led by Meriel Andrew, as they peck, cluck and strut around the stage. Alas, hens and foxes don’t really get on, and when revolution fails, the vixen resorts to more basic methods, killing the entire fowl flock and using them as a diversionary stepping-stone to jump the wall and escape back to the forest.

The Forester has mixed feelings about the escape, He has a love hate relationship with the fox, in some ways sorry to see her go, in others it’s good riddance – or perhaps he is glad she has her freedom. 

Irish soprano Aoife Miskelly is a delight as the vixen - attractive, vibrant, full of life with a cheeky charm and with a lovely, clear, pure voice.

You genuinely feel sorry for her when she meets her end at the hands of the not very likable poacher Harašta, sung by bass David Stout.

Harašta is unpopular on every level. For a start he is a poacher, so the forester is after him, but even worse, he is set to marry Terynka.

Who she? you ask. She is the gypsy girl lusted after by the Forester, the schoolmaster, sung by tenor Peter Van Hulle, and the parson, bass, Wojtek Gierlach, as they help boost the profits of the local inn on what appears to be a nightly basis.

We never actually meet the young, presumably, lady but the trio certainly have the hots for her . . . in a more mature restrained way.

In various states of inebriation on their staggering way home, the schoolmaster tells a bush he thinks is the gypsy charmer, that he loves her, while the parson, tells how Terynka is stirring the feelings he had about a temptress in his youth.


Lucia Cervoni as the Fox and  Aoife Miskelly as the Vixen

Meanwhile, away from the humans, what has happened in the fox world. Well, the vixen, enjoying her freedom, and new hme, has come across another fox, this time a dog, sung by Candian mezzo-soprano Lucia Cervoni and a sweet, naïve romance develops.

Now as this was in 1924, before Sky and even TV, people, and foxes, had to make their own entertainment, so we soon had eight fox cubs. Here though, we are asked, as we are several times, to see animals facing a human dilemma. The Vixen is unsure about premarital sex and what orher creatures will think, so the pair have to get married to stop tongues – or beaks as it is the starlings again – wagging.

So with Mr and Mrs Fox and their efforts to populate the world underway, everyone is living happily ever after, or at least until Harašta and his shotgun show up nd the Vixen’s life is, literally, blown apart.

The forester realises his vixen is dead when Harašta turns up at his wedding to Terynka with her red coat and to lose his gypsy girl, who he never actually had, and the vixen, who he couldn’t actually keep, was all a bit too much for him.

So, with age weighing heavy as he realises most of his life is now behind him he wanders off to the forest and sits down for a troubled sleep, only to be confronted by a frog, and not only that, it is the grandson of the frog chased by the vixen those many years ago.

It is a moment that brings home to him the eternal circle of life and death, a moment that brings him calm and peace and allows him to sleep easy – or does he die with a sort of contentment. We will never know.

As operas go this is different to the classics with soaring scores and powerful arias. It is based on a Prague newspaper’s illustrated story series about a wily vixen and Leoš Janáček took that and added Morovian folk tunes to create an opera which can be performed as anything from children’s entertainment, in the same vein as Peter and the Wolf, or as a tragic opera with the vixen and her death taking on deeper, darker significance.

WNO treat it as whimsy. It is fun with a cartoon feel to the clever, undulating set from the late, legendary Maria Björnson. It is a set that splits to reveal the forester’s yard, the inn and anything else, beautifully lit by Nick Chelton.

It is an opera that also brings in dance with various creatures from mosquitoes to butterflies, birds to squirrels, all in lovely costumes, with plenty of children and even moments of ballet in a production which dates back to 1980 – yet is still as fresh as ever.

As always, the excellent WNO Orchestra under celebrated Czech conductor and WNO Musical director Tomáš Hanus add greatly to the enjoyment of the evening in an opera directed by former WNO artistic director David Poutney.

It’s different and delightful,

Roger Clarke



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