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The Cunning Little Vixen

Jennie Sharpe

SYDNEY CHAMBER OPERA: Something is stirring in the depths of the forest. This vibrant production is chamber opera, but not as you know it.
The Cunning Little Vixen
Something is stirring in the forest – a sexy vixen is hatching a cunning plan to win her freedom. And, with the support of the vivacious Sydney Chamber Opera singers and orchestra, foxy Julie Goodwin’s vixen certainly carries the day.

Formed last year by a group of talented and energetic young Sydney Conservatorium students, the Sydney Chamber Opera continues to give opera a makeover with this new production of Janáček’s classic modernist opera, The Cunning Little Vixen.

Inspired by a newspaper comic, the 1924 opera tells the tale of Vixen Sharp-Ears who is captured by the Gamekeeper as a cub. The Vixen grows up to become a feminist anarchist; a symbol of sexual liberation to the humans of the nearby village; and, eventually, the beloved wife of the fox and mother to a very large brood.

It’s definitely not your average opera libretto but, as one bizarre scene gives way to the next, Janáček’s music enfolds the audience, wrapping them in a world on the edge of reality and giving glimpses of deep, hidden meanings in this parable of the natural life cycle.

In the spacious CarriageWorks theatre, Hanna Sandgren, in keeping with the pared-back chamber version of the opera, has kept set design to a minimum. Before a mysteriously-lit 16-piece orchestra, animals and humans, both little and large, dance and sing over a gracefully twisting tree of life.

Sandgren’s costumes mirror Janáček’s bubbling, multi-layered and ever-surprising music. Its rhythms and intriguing harmonies are echoed in the fabulous red and white frills and ruffles of the hens, the dashing cloaks of Fox and Badger, and the lovely shabby-chic garb of the Vixen herself.

Under conductor Jack Symonds, the orchestra’s spot-on timing and rhythmic energy seem to infuse the singers with the same verve in voice and movement, reflecting the uniformity of vision in every aspect of director Kate Gaul’s production. From the cute and impeccably choreographed children’s chorus to the adult chorus and soloists, everyone is clearly having a brilliant time playing their unique part in a cohesive whole.

Gaul has created a sense of simplicity and directness, but no performance lacks attention to detail. Hens, frogs, grasshoppers, mosquitoes and foxes are all amusingly animal-like while the humans sag with the heavy weight of their depressingly constrained, country village lives.

Simon Gilkes imbues the Schoolmaster with stony inaction, his voice round and full, while Alexander Knight’s Gamekeeper rides the waves of his character’s frustrations and illuminations. His final solo is a brilliant display of freedom and precision.

Bryony Dwyer’s turn as the male Fox in pursuit of the Vixen is wonderfully masculine and her voice is an exquisitely radiant and soaring delight. Ashley Giles’ guilt-ridden Parson, Anna Dowsley’s sexually frustrated Dog, and Sylvie Humphries’ cock-sure Cock are all worthy of note.

At the centre, of course, is Julie Goodwin’s Vixen. After shining in starring roles in West Side Story and The Phantom of the Opera, her charismatic stage presence and ability to disappear into a character come as no surprise. Her fulsome voice covers Janáček’s light to dark colour spectrum expertly. She is, without doubt, a fox to rule the forest.

Rating: Four stars

The Cunning Little Vixen
By Leoš Janáček
Chamber version by Jonathan Dove
Conductor: Jack Symonds
Director: Kate Gaul
Designer: Hanna Sandgren
Lighting Designer: Luiz Pampolha

With: Julie Goodwin, Bryony Dwyer, Alexander Knight, Simon Gilkes, Ashley Giles, Anna Dowsley, Sylvie Humphries, Jared Lillehagen, Elli Green, Sarah Briety, Daniel Nicholson, Maria Hemphill, Elissa Tran, Marisa Panzarin, Agnes Sarkis, Amanda Stephens-Lee, Children’s Chorus & Orchestra

CarriageWorks, Chippendale
July 30 – August 6

View rehearsal footage and behind the scenes interviews here

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Jennie Sharpe is a poet, freelance writer and editor. She has published a collection of poetry in the book Australia: Facing the South and is also a novelist and short story writer. Jennie studied literature and theatre and is a classically trained musician. She is passionate about film, theatre, opera and visual art and is currently a sub-editor and contributor for French Provincial magazine.

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