Based upon a Czech newspaper comic strip and subsequent novel, Leoš Janáček’s delightful The Cunning Little Vixen is an opera for all ages, one whose themes hold perhaps even greater relevance today. The tale of a young vixen, Sharp Ears, who has been caught and raised by humans only to escape into the woods, is a cautionary tale wherein the animals of the piece are wiser than the humans. Directed by the company’s Artistic Director Stuart Maunder, Janáček’s delightful romp is a dream bursting into the Technicolor woods where the animals are smarter than humans – where they understand and converse with each other, whilst the humans of the piece are ignorant and presented in dull shades of predominantly black, grey and earthen colours.

Antoinette Halloran and Desiree Frahn in State Opera of South Australia’s Cunning Little Vixen. All photos © Bernard Hull

Already seen by audiences in Victoria and Western Australia, Maunder’s Vixen is a highly imaginative romp, providing the perfect visual accompaniment to Janáček’s score which brings together Straussian radiance in its arias and duets, Moravian folktunes in the animal’s ensemble settings and Stravinskian spikiness. There is so much to take in here, and there is much to single out as worthy of praise, such as Richard Roberts’ set designs which are highly stylised and yet simple with the skeletal outlines of four trees central to the stage, and Trudy Dalgleish’s wonderous lighting, projected onto what appears to be a paper-like screen with a vibrant, seemingly endless array of colours employed to suggest the changing of the seasons, and indeed, life itself.

The cast of State Opera of South Australia’s Cunning Little Vixen

However it may just be Roger Kirk’s witty and oh-so-colourful costumes that steal the show. In the opening scene a wide variety of forest life including animals, insects and amphibians invade the stage with their costumes suggesting as to no doubt who they are and yet they appear to be otherworldly – like a procession of Boschian hobgoblins in the most vibrant of colours, and this is all achieved with a great sense of humour. The frog bounces past on a large inflated ball, whilst the battery of vibrantly red and white hens with their flame-like combs seem to be an ingenious cross between Elton John and the Pet Shop Boys in one of their more exultant getups. Sharp Ears and her paramour, Golden Boy, are suitably vulpine with their red hair and russet highlighted outfits.

As we’ve come to expect of late, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in the pit is a joy, with the highly sympathetic conducting of Johannes Fritzsch, not only supporting the singers so well, but providing highly idiomatic takes on Janáček’s masterly, almost descriptive score with its frequent allusions to animal cries and the like. Even this rather utilitarian venue – basically a cement box, and one well-known to those undertaking Adelaide University examinations, became an intimate venue with warm acoustics.

James Clayton in State Opera of South Australia’s Cunning Little Vixen

The cast throughout was excellent with local soprano Desiree Frahn as the Vixen suitably witty and flirtatious throughout. Her debonair mate, the Fox, was a role reprised by the indomitable Antoinette Halloran who flirted just as much with her appreciative audience as her Vixen – and let it be said that their brace of cubs were so cute! Here was a truly ensemble cast in the best sense of the word with even the minor roles given humour and joy.

Man has certainly much to learn about nature and let’s hope that like the Forester at the end of the tale, when he takes home one of the Vixen’s cubs to raise, that he’ll do a much better job with her than he’d done with Sharp Ears, her mother. And perhaps it’s Sharp Ears and the Forester (the excellent James Clayton) who are the show’s finest protagonists. If there is a criticism about this production, it relates to the ensemble scenes and dancing, where a choreographer is needed.

State Opera of South Australia’s Cunning Little Vixen has two more performances on May 23 and 25