REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on The Cunning Little Vixen, Opera North, Leeds Grand Theatre, February 17

Stefanos Dimoulas as Dragonfly in Opera North’s The Cunning Little Vixen. Picture: Tristram Kenton

LEOS Janáček’s fairy-tale must be the greenest opera in the repertory, and not only ecologically. It remains fresh.

Equally evergreen is David Pountney’s production, whose origins lie as far back as the Edinburgh International Festival of 1980. It reached Leeds in 1984, the 60th anniversary of this piece.

Happily Pountney, now Sir David, is still around to cast an eye over this revival, although Elaine Tyler-Hall is his associate on the ground. She also resuscitates the original choreography of Stuart Hopps.

The other genius of the founding triumvirate is the late Maria Björnson, her sets and costumes a constant reminder of her supremely imaginative talents.

The rolling hills and downs of the countryside in this multi-purpose set pull back to provide the Forester’s farmyard, the tavern or the foxes’ den. The encroaching forest is cleverly evoked by overhanging branches downstage, in which birds sit screened in rocking-chairs. The ‘melting’ of the icesheets drew a spontaneous round of applause on this occasion.

Elin Pritchard’s lively Vixen Sharp-Ears wins hearts at once with her zest for life, not to say liberation. But it is combined with a youthful innocence in her tone. She and her Fox, Heather Lowe, complement each other ideally in their love-duet, the latter’s extra chest resonance supplying a touch of machismo.

Another mainstay is James Rutherford’s avuncular Forester, underpinning the link with the animal kingdom, a true countryman. Suitably disgruntled as his drinking companions are Paul Nilon’s rueful Schoolmaster and Henry Waddington’s maudlin Parson, each finely drawn.

Callum Thorpe’s vagabond poacher Harašta always carries menace. He freezes in his stance for some time after shooting Vixen, diluting the shock of the event but also allowing pause for thought about man’s treatment of nature; a key moment.

Further cruelty is handled with similar finesse. As Vixen slaughters the cock and five hens – a gleeful ensemble – each throws out red feathers as they collapse. It is no joke, of course, but is made to seem so.

Children people this show as to the manner born, none more so than the squirrels with their parasols and the ten fox-cubs, all the spitting image of their mother. Special praise, too, for the supple dancing of the Dragonfly (Stefanos Dimoulas) and the Spirit of the Vixen (Lucy Burns), as eloquent as the music.

None of these pleasures would have been possible without a conductor alive to the score’s many nuances: Andrew Gourlay is in complete command. An evening as thought-provoking as it is enchanting.

Further performances of The Cunning Little Vixen: Leeds Grand Theatre, February 23, 7pm, March 3, 7pm, and March 4, 2.30pm. Box office: 0113 243 0808 or On tour to Salford, Nottingham, Newcastle and Hull (New Theatre, March 29, school matinee, 1pm; March 31, 7pm;

Mini Vixen, a shortened family entertainment with three singers, a violinist and an accordionist will be performed at National Centre for Early Music, Walmgate, York, on February 26, 11.30am and 1.30pm. Box office: 01904 658338 or

Review by Martin Dreyer