Glyndebourne’s Vixen and ENO’s Billy

How different can opera experiences be. Glyndebourne’s production of Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen is done in a colourful, quite imaginative setting, with real forests and forrester’s lodge, with singers and actors, including many children, dressed up as birds, badgers, foxes and more, with a hilarious flock of chickens in high heels, pink sexy underwear, reminding the viewer of what a whorehouse must have looked like in the Old Wild West, and with much, much running, dancing – in short, action. This is essentially a naturalist production, portraying the 80 year-old Janacek’s late fascination with nature and forest. It is a children’s production, showing the eternal cycle of life and death and birth: slightly boring. The first act is mainly action, not a single aria, just short vignettes of singing; the second act is musically – at least singing-wise – much more elaborate and produces some fabulous arias.
But still, to me the opera part of Glyndebourne was disappointing, more than compensated, however, by fabulous picknick weather, the outside part of the event much more glamorous than the inside. This is such a fantastic site with people dressed very appropriately in tuxedos and long dresses, in Scottish kilts, in splendid gowns – but also in more modest garb. But everything in a very festive atmosphere, where picknicks range from plastic-bagged sandwiches to elaborate silver platters and crystal champagne, foie gras and salmon. It is a very British event, which judging from the accents heard around the lawns and ponds, is however enjoyed by many foreigners.

I somehow have the view that Janacek’s opera could be seen – and should be stages – in a much more symbolistic manner, where the highly desirable gypsy girl plays an important role as the fantasy model for the sexually repressed Czech revellers, where the little vixen doubles as the gypsy’s nature representation. This would make much more sense, also knowing Janacek’s other operatic work, like the Makropolous case or Katia Kabanova.

The recent Billy Budd production at the English National Opera certainly leaves nothing to be desired in terms of a dramatic story. While the singers are really outstanding, both Captain Vere (“Starry Vere” as his sailors call him reverently), and Billy, but also Taggart and the other men (not a single woman in this opera!), the production is ugly, drab and uninspiring. The costumes of the sailors are a mixture between jumpsuits, firefighters and concentration camp inmates; those of the guards certainly should remind one of SS guards, while the officers also rather fit into the 1930s and 1940s than into 1797. Vere has a uniform reminiscent of the images of Hermann Göring. But altogether the production does manage to depict the Captain’s conflict between his humanity (recognizing Billy’s overwhelming “goodness”) and the need to maintain strictest discipline in the face of war with “Frenchie”, but also his cowardice (?) or reticence to act when he did have a chance to save Billy. Maybe the ugly costumes and props are supposed to show that such conflicts are timeless, that evil borne of (again) repressed (homo-)sexuality (Taggart) is everywhere and human frailty ubiquitous. A fanstastic, if too loud orchestra, great choir and strong voices did tip the balance towards a very impressive night at the opera. Still, the memory of Glyndebourne’s Billy Budd of 2010, which was a memorable Gesamtkunstwerk, remains.


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