Filled with magic

26 February 2013

Advancing age may snap at the human characters in Janácek's multilayered opera of human and animal life, death and lust, as it snapped at the composer himself. But it hasn't damaged David Pountney's vintage production created by Welsh National Opera and Scottish Opera. Filled with magic, humourous bustle,and low-tech practicality, Pountney's show has toured the world now for 33 years, and the late Maria Bjornson's costumes and patchwork hilly set - the Teletubbies landscape before its time - still generate grins of delight. 

So does the action contained within. Sung in Pountney's idiomatic English, with the production revived by Elaine Tyler-Hall, the opera's cartwheeling, hyperactive creatures makes a pretty contract with the characters lurking in its Cardiff companion, Berg's Lulu. 

Pountney, now the WNO's boss, thrust together these operas of the 1920s and 1930s to highlight what he sees as the heroines' secret link: they are both "bad sisters", disruptive female and feminist forces who frightend the pants off the early modern male. 

A valid view, indeed, though it remains in the mind's recesses as the ubiquitous Sophie Bevan, remarkably athletic in Stuart Hopp's vintage choreography, tumbles about as the Vixen who escapes the Forester's clutches and stays a life force even after death. Not all of Bevan's words leap over the orchestra, very crisply conducted by Lothar Koenigs, though no one could doubt the ecstatic ardour of her love duet with Sarah Castle's Fox. Among the many smaller animal parts, Julian Boyce makes a nice doleful Dog, Laurence Cole is properly peeved as the Badger, and who could resist the strutting chorus line of hens? For sharpness of characterisation, though, the humans win the day. In pitch and tone Jonathan Summers may need the odd drop of lubricating oil, but every word of his thwarted Forester hits home. The same is true of Alan Oke's melancholic Schoolmaster, David Stout's more virile Poacher and Richard Angas's Parson - the kind who should make female parishioners very wary.

Janácek's opera and this production dart about all over the place, only to come to rest movingly in the final scene, when natures' cycle begins again. In Summers's monologue on Sunday we needed more rapture here, more wonder; but we still had Janácek's genius, the orchestra's lilting radiance, and Bjornson's forest wonders. 

Reviewed by Geoff Brown