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Opera North - The Cunning Little Vixen

Opera North - The Cunning Little Vixen

A Forester captures a young Vixen and takes her home as a pet for his children. But when she is harassed by the Forester’s amorous dog, and tormented by the children, she escapes back into the wild.

There, the Vixen meets a Fox and has a family, but later she is shot dead as she fends for her cubs. Her children survive, however, and the opera ends in an affirmation of the power of nature to renew itself.

Inspired by the sights and sounds of his native Moravian countryside, Janáček’s colouristic score vividly evokes both the human and animal worlds without a trace of sentimentality. David Pountney’s production  – here conducted by Opera North's Music Director Garry Walker – is widely regarded as a classic.

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Opera North - The Cunning Little Vixen ON TOUR

Our review on Opera North - The Cunning Little Vixen

Opera North's The Cunning Little Vixen - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 7th March 2023 by Karen Ryder

Our Rating
Opera North's The Cunning Little Vixen is full of charm, bursting with energy, colour and dazzling movement

The Cunning Little Vixen by Janácek is an opera I have wanted to see performed live since I started studying music seriously at school.  It has always felt like the fairy tale of the opera world, and though it has tricky elements such as death, it embraces the magic and wonder of life through its animal characters, creating a unique and special ambience.  “All the world is in this forest,” is the perfect way to highlight expectations and welcome you into this serene and peaceful world – that is until it is disrupted by humans.  Whilst this is not my first opera, The Cunning Little Vixen does present itself as an ideal starter opera for anyone wanting to dip their toe into this irrepressible world of soaring music, impeccable costumes and high drama.  Where else would you find a balletic dragonfly, dogs, hens, badgers, even mosquitos?  And of course not forgetting the vixen!

Our heroine Sharp Ears is living a wonderful life in a forest teaming with beauty and life.  She is playful and curious, but as her adventures startle a frog, it setsa domino effect into motion that alters her entire world.  The stunned frog jumps onto a napping Forester, waking him.  He spots Sharp Ears and without a second thought to the life she may have, captures her and takes her home to be his pet.  Sharp Ears longs for freedom, particularly as she is treated unkindly by the Foresters children, and so finally, as a young adult, she makes her escape.  Her escape is full of mischief and mayhem though, sacrificing a few innocent hens along the way to cause a distraction.

Reunited with her beloved forest home at long last, Sharp Ears does whatever it takes to remain liberated and free and enlists the help of the innocent forest creatures to do so.  Meanwhile, drunken banter between the Forester and the Schoolmaster dent the Foresters pride, and so he vows to recapture Sharp Ears. 

As life goes on, Sharp Ears falls in love, marries, and has cubs, but the Forester has not forgotten his vow.  He sets a trap for her, but she mocks him, encouraging her Fox and cubs to join in.  They do.  The Forester is humiliated but sadly, it all ends in tears. 

There is a beautiful message running throughout the entire production of contentment and living in the moment.  The animals are able to just ‘be’ and appreciate their surroundings, with no past or future to concern their present.  In contrast, the humans allow their pasts to emerge in the form of grudges, jealousies, resentments and ego.  This is ultimately what causes the downfalls and heartaches within the story.  Unfortunately, it takes a tragedy to enable the Forester to see things with fresh eyes, to appreciate his surroundings and this is a really poignant and touching moment.  There were a few sniffles and tears amongst the audience.

Opera North have once again made their art form so welcoming and open for everyone.  Transcripts of the songs are projected onto screens so you can follow the story (though this opera is sung in English), and the action is played out via a series of short scenes, alluding back to its origins of a comic strip.  It is made equally easy to follow due to the creative and quirky personalities injected into each of the animals and creatures.  The impressive playground, fantasy set is the first thing that strikes you, for it is almost 3D in its nature and how the cast manoeuvre and dance across its bumps and ridges with such ease is impressive to say the least.  The visual effect of this set coupled with the costumes is dazzling and completely enthrals and beguiles in equal measures.  The passing of the seasons is so clever, with snow sheets draping the set, and wittingly pulled away in a whimsical way to reveal spring, where flowers grow out of umbrellas. 

Autumn is represented by piles of cushions as fallen leaves and summer sees the return of all the forest creatures.  The inclusion of children in the production for younger or smaller insects or animals works well and helps give the production an authentic innocence.  The arrival of the hens on stage provides a comical moment, with brilliant physical comedy through movement to depict their behaviour.  The intricacies of the individual movement styles for the animals are mesmerising and spectacular to watch.  The dragonfly is entirely believable as they flutter and float around the stage with such balletic ease.  In fact the movement throughout is sublime, from the tumbling down the hills, to the arabesques, and the combined fluidity of dancer and puppet.   

The apparent collaboration of skills in The Cunning Little Vixen from exuberant singing to the outstanding acting and wonderful dancing is to be applauded, and if that’s not enough, the magical costumes will take your breath away.   I have to talk about the costumes, designed by Maria Björnson.  Wow!  Not only do they imaginatively capture the essence of the character, using relevant colour palettes and creating opportunity for incredible and stylised movement, they also pay homage to the era the work was written in!  A 1920’s vixen flapper-esque dress is a brilliant example of the creativity on display.  I loved the cricket with strings attached between its feet and body and a bow to play them. The concertina caterpillar was great, and the hens were fabulous with detailed feathers sticking out of their dresses.  Visually, it is beautiful.  The set, design, lighting, and of course the magnificent orchestra ensure that your senses are lit and stirred into a delightful frenzy of joy. 

 David Pountney is behind this production, and he has brought this unusual opera to the stage with an apparent love, dignity, and celebration.  This production is jam packed with seasoned professionals who are returning to Opera North and it is an honour to watch them.  Elin Pritchard is feisty and mischievous as the vixen Shar Ears.  She pounces across the stage effortlessly and captures that playful, yet fierce nature of a vixen.  Her voice is crystal clear and can be heard at all times, such is its strength. James Rutherford as the Forester fills the theatre with his rich and deep powerful voice.  He is able to make us loathe him yet laugh with him at the same time through his character portrayal and even feel empathy for him towards the end.


Heather Lowe has boundless energy as the Fox and makes the perfect pairing for Elin Pritchard.  Their combined voices are heaven.  Callum Thorpe, Paul Nilon, and Henry Waddington as the poacher, schoolmaster and parson are strong, and comical.  Their drunken walking across the ice is brilliant and made everyone giggle in recognition.  Stefanos Dimoulas is elegant, delicate and delightful as the dragonfly, and sets the high standard for dance throughout this opera, which is indeed made up of a great deal of flawless ballet.

The musical score for The Cunning Little Vixen by Janácek is inspired and one of the many reasons this opera stands out.  Using folk music from his native Czech Republic, Janácek effortlessly fuses their rhythms, beats and melodies into the very heart of the score, giving authenticity to the fairy tale, folk based essence of the opera in a way that no one else has ever achieved.  These elements sit alongside the traditional orchestral passages with ease, creating the perfect and inspired sound for this opera.  The full orchestra, led by conductor Andrew Gourlay, flood the theatre with their rousing music and ignites hidden emotions in your heart. 

The Cunning Little Vixen is bursting with energy, colour, and dazzling movement.  It is playful, winsome, yet bittersweet and full of emotion.  You cannot help but be drawn into the connection between nature and our human world, with its finely tuned message of balance and delicacy of our intertwined cycle of life.  It will charm you and bring a little magic and imagination to your day as you gently examine life and loss.  Opera North have even put on a matinee performance on Wednesday 8th March, specifically aimed at schools.  I cannot think of a more enchanting and special opera to welcome our future audiences into this wonderful art form live.    


Opera North are performing at The Lowry until Saturday 11th March. They are returning with The Cunning Little Vixen at 1pm on Wednesday 8th March. Then on Thursday 9th and Saturday 11th March they will perform Tosca. Also appearing is Ariadne Auf Naxos on Friday 10th March.


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