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Janacek at Royal Academy of Music

The Cunning Little Vixen, Royal Academy Opera conducted by Sir Charles MacKerras, Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, Marylebone, London, 29 March 2003

It is not so very long ago that Janacek was considered a difficult composer for orchestras and their audiences (I remember the BBC Symphony Orchestra struggling with Taras Bulba at rehearsal, and Rafael Kubelik coaching us to pronounce the composer's name correctly).

We were lucky to attend the last of R. A. M's four performances, and the second by the second cast of students, in the Royal Academy of Music's presentation of the ever-delightful and deservedly popular Cunning Little Vixen.

By Saturday, the student orchestra down in its deep pit was playing confidently and fully equal to conveying securely Sir Charles MacKerras's unsurpassable vision of this magical work, rolling back the years to memories of his pioneering studies of Janacek and his supposedly eccentric orchestration scoring (not always easy to decipher and smoothed out in earlier editions). MacKerras's promotion of the operas, one by one, at Sadler's Wells gradually brought this idiosyncratic composer into the operatic mainstream.

The RAM production avoided the 'tweeness' of some others and its budgetary limitations for scenic presentation were turned to advantage , as was the small stage at the comfortable, well-raked Sir Jack Lyons Theatre. It helped to remind us of the opera's origins, strip-cartoon stories by Rudolf Tesnohlídek, with illustrations by Stanislav Lalek, serialised in a popular newspaper.

The students were mostly well fitted out (apart from the lack of a proper badger costume) in amusing animal apparel and in Sarah Tynan* they found a real star as the feisty and sexy heroine, who fooled everyone and gleefully destroyed all the beautifully observed hens and their stupid leader, an unintelligent cock. But to bring a more serious and reflective tone into the fable, Janacek altered the original in his own libretto, having our heroine killed, but not before a romantic courtship with Rebecca Cooper, the handsome fox assures the preservation of the cycle of life in this microcosm.

The slaughtered hens made a costume change to emerge again as a brood of fox cubs (some of them had grown with indecent haste at least as large as their mother). A pity that the Royal Academy of Music did not recruit some of their Saturday morning Junior Exhibitioners (my son was one several decades ago !) for those not too demanding parts in the last Act.

Darker notes were brought in with the human characters, especially tenor Edward Lyon as a lugubrious schoolmaster, conveying his isolation with admirable stillness. Rodney Clarke rose to the Forester's musings about nature's renewal at the end and everyone made a contribution in the cameo parts. But it must not be forgotten that this was primarily an educational project, participation in the large casts being as important as individual excellence; the overall team work was entirely admirable and this was no poor man's Vixen; taken as a whole, it bore comparison with many of the prestigious productions world-wide.

The show had benefited crucially from the subtle direction of famous movement expert, Anna Sweeny, who had been responsible for the marvellous L'enfant et les Sortileges at the inaugural production** of the newly-established Royal Academy Opera in February 2002, and again helped them to assume far-out roles without any self consciousness so that we easily suspended disbelief and entered into the spirit of the enterprise.

Peter Grahame Woolf

*Production photos by Jonathan Dockar-Drysdale

**- - (reviewed for Classical London/Arts Opinion February 2002): Ravel: L'enfant et les sortilèges Royal Academy Opera & Sinfonia/Dominic Wheeler; Anna Sweeny Director; Michael Holt Designer; Leonard Tucker Lighting Designer. Sir Jack Lyons Theatre - - This occasion celebrated the opera work of Anna Sweeny with her award as Honorary Member of The Academy. Her particular expertise in stage movement was well displayed in both these these impressive productions, which once again demonstrated that for really inventive and well co-ordinated opera production, the schools and colleges should never be overlooked. Team-work predominated and the singing was uniformly excellent, with too many potential stars of the future to name the soloists individually. - - Ravel's L'enfant et les sortilèges is always a joy, equally for young and old, with its naughty child (Trine Bastrup Moller really not naughty enough) and a marvellously conceived assortment of talking teapots, amorous cats, a fire bursting out of the grate and a menagerie of animals in the garden, all dressed and choreographed with great imagination. Large casts and a full Royal Academy of Music Sinfonia in the capacious pit of the attractive and comfortable Sir Jack Lyons Theatre - credit all round for an evening to savour, giving a splendid launch to Royal Academy Opera.
(PGW, ArtsOpinion)

Press Release 15 April 2003: New Head of Opera is Anthony Legge

The Royal Academy of Music, is very pleased to announce that Anthony Legge has been appointed to succeed Iain Ledingham as Head of Opera from September 2003.

This appointment of one of the top professionals in the business will ensure that Royal Academy Opera will build further on its recent successful productions, most recently of Janácek's The Cunning Little Vixen conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras and Alexander Briger. Plans for 2003-4 include productions of Haydn's Il Mondo della luna, conducted by Iain Ledingham, and Mozart's The Magic Flute, conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

Academy students benefit from the close relationships which our staff hold with all the major English opera companies, and we are delighted that Anthony Legge, currently Head of Music at English National Opera, will be maintaining a role at ENO in addition to his new responsibilities here.

© Peter Grahame Woolf