Orchestrally speaking, Janacek is bringing out the best in our big opera houses. While Sir Charles Mackerras gallantly triumphs over age and infirmity to conduct a coruscating performance of ‘The Cunning Little Vixen’ at Covent Garden, Mark Wigglesworth extracts more pliant beauty from the Coliseum band than any other conductor has in recent memory.
Dramatically, things are more variable. It was rotten luck for Covent Garden that Emma Bell, whose Fox was eagerly awaited, should have been taken ill a day before curtain-up, leaving Elisabeth Meister - a soprano on the Jette Parker scheme - to vault into this exposed position from a minor part as the Rooster: she did as well as could reasonably have been expected. But in this opera’s beguiling hubbub, where children’s voices mingle with those of adults, it didn’t matter hugely that Emma Matthews as Vixen Sharp-Ears didn’t vocally impose herself; what counted far more was the wonderful singing of that genial giant Matthew Rose as the Poacher, and of Christopher Maltman as the Forester. The grave beauty of Maltman’s closing monologue cast a retrospective glow on everything that had gone before. Castigate Bill Bryden’s production as showbizzy if you will, but for me, as for many others, this aerial extravaganza, with its vast turning wheels suggesting the cycle of the seasons, is an inspired expression of this work’s intricate, child’s-eye truthfulness. I still remember David Pountney’s version for ENO is the Eighties - with its quieter bucolic charm - but this show is a winner.
Over at the Coliseum, David Alden’s realisation of Janacek’s ‘Katya Kabanova’ misfires from the start, as the curtain rises on a peasant woman peeling potatoes in front of an unpainted and flamboyantly skewed plywood set on Alden’s trademark raked stage: corny Slav realism meets corny agit-prop modishness. As with his production of Janacek’s ‘Jenufa’, Alden updates this nineteenth-century village tragedy to the Soviet Twenties, and as before, the suffocatingly condemnatory atmosphere of a God-fearing little society - essential if the drama is to work - is lost. Adultery to the Bolsheviks was no big deal, and the agit-prop hoarding showing a devil pitchforking malefactors down to hell is oxymoronic in the strict sense of the word.
The plot turns on the fact that Katya is on the verge of a breakdown, trapped in her loveless marriage, yearning for someone else, and prey to Ophelia-like delusions which intensify as she moves towards her Ophelia-like demise. Apart from one superb moment when the whole world seems to go into a convulsion of communal angst - with the storm hitting the village and people being hurled about - this staging is the complete antithesis to the Expressionist classic devised by the late Maria Bjornson for Covent Garden. Here, huge shadows are projected, to no obvious purpose. The leitmotif river is sometimes in the pit, sometimes backstage, and Katya’s athletic run-and-jump into it is pure cod-Tosca. When the hoarding is ostentatiously lowered face-down into the middle of the stage, it stays there for the rest of the evening, pulley and all, just getting in everyone’s way. Why is the household icon boldly displayed, when Soviet rules would have forced the family to hide it in the attic? Why is the lovely counterpoint between the happy lovers and the doomed ones destroyed by making the latter muffled and out of view? And above all, why does this Katya - undeniably well sung by the American soprano Patricia Raclette - come across as so insufferably confident and composed?
The evening’s saving grace lies in the rest of the singing. Susan Bickley’s Kabanicha is as steely as one could wish, while Stuart Skelton’s Boris projects grave despair, and John Graham-Hall’s castrated Tikhon is a creature forged in hell. But the stars of the evening are Anna Grevelius and Alfie Boe, as Varvara and Vanya: one couldn’t imagine a more spirited pair of young lovers, or a sweeter vocal match.