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Sir Simon Rattle revisits The Cunning Little Vixen, an opera that he says changed his life, in a groundbreaking new recording on the LSO Live label

Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen (Příhody lišky Bystroušky, 1922/3) is a seminal work for Sir Simon Rattle, thanks to a production at the Royal Academy of Music under Steuart Bedford in which the student Rattle played the celesta and conducted the off-stage chorus. ‘I felt it changed my life,’ he says in the booklet, and you can sense a deep connection with Vixen running throughout this new recording.

This resonance was already apparent in Rattle’s 1990 Royal Opera recording, originally on EMI, re-released on Chandos, sung in English by a cast that included Thomas Allen, Lillian Watson and Diana Montague. With this new recording, taken from live performances at London’s Barbican Centre last September and performed in Czech, the interpretation has blossomed even further.

The key to the recording’s success is the evocation of a fantastical world. The Cunning Little Vixen relates to the idea of Märchenoper (fairy tale opera), popular in the 19th century. Janáček knew that these seemingly innocuous stories often have dark undercurrents – something we feel more keenly here in Rattle’s deep rethink of the score. Perhaps of all interpreters, Rattle sees the wide-reaching scope of this music, revelling in sudden moments of Straussian opulence while expertly micro-managing detail. If there is an equal, Mackerras’ VPO set with Randova, Popp and Jedlička springs to mind; but Rattle is even fresher, his orchestra keener to narrate the tale. Just listen to the LSO’s depiction of the Blue Dragonfly’s hyper-delicate wings (with the LSO, one is often reminded that he opera was, indeed, inspired by a comic strip). The recorded sound here has strong left/right separation and a very focused bass – truer than the rather more upholstered Chandos version.

In terms of characters, the opera is dominated by the Vixen and the Forester, and here we have Lucy Crowe in the title role confirming her place as one of the most exciting talents of today. Crowe (whom one can also enjoy as Vixen on a DVD from Glyndebourne) can be infinitely touching; and you can hear how astonishingly free her voice is, particularly in the second act. Crowe’s voice also works supremely well with that of the Puerto Rican-American soprano Sophia Burgos, who takes the role of The Fox. The Forester is Gerald Finley, who fully realises the importance of Janáček’s speech rhythms in the vocal writing.

In such company it would be difficult to steal the show, but South African soprano Paulina Malefane as the Forester’s Wife comes close, oozing character. Such care has gone into casting: Peter Hoare is equally impressive in the roles of Mosquito, Cock and Schoolmaster; while Jan Martiník’s Rector shines, truly involved. This opera has more parts for children than most, and special mention should go to Saoirse Exelby’s Young Vixen and the LSO Discovery Voices.

All this would be meaningless without Rattle and his forces on razor-sharp form, as this opera is absolutely unforgiving. A fabulous performance of huge character and conviction – far more than a momento of a clearly unforgettable occasion.

Colin Clarke Read the full review on Agora Classica

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