Vaults Theatre, London – until 10 June 2017
Vixen is a homeless girl in a world that only seeks to take advantage. Vixen is a fiery redhead who can take care of herself, lashing out at any man that tries it on. Vixen eschews typical human contact, constantly wary that there is an ulterior motive.
In Leoš Janáček’s original opera, Vixen is also an animal – not so in Daisy Evans’ modern update. The problem with this more current and relevant version is that Vixen (Rosie Lomas) is a superficial and threadbare character, stripped back to the bare bones that structure her gaunt frame. Unlike Janáček’s edited score, which retains its sense of duality through Stephen Higgins and Max Pappenheim’s deft pruning, Vixen is barely a person at all.
Janáček is a master of fusing the contemporary with the classical – soaring Romantic strings above a highly percussive and dissonant bassline attest to that. Pappenheim and Higgins have gone a step further and incorporated some synthesised, electronic beats to add a pulsating undercurrent to the music. It drives the action forward… Or at least it would if there were any action to be steered.
Through some ingenious mixing, the combination of recorded orchestra with live instrumentalists is pumped through headphones directly to the listener’s ears. It’s simultaneously intimate and grandiose, the feeling of an Eastern European, 1920s bleakness with the tender vibrato of a solo violin string. Add in a woodwind section with rich, purple tones and you get a chamber group that accentuates the romantic piquancy of Janáček’s orchestration.
From the onslaught of the overture to the introverted aria of Vixen (Lomas) herself, the musical tapestry is rich with colour and texture. Lomas for the most part has a controlling vocal – strong and defiant with a distinctive, intentional vibrato that resonates throughout the cavernous Vaults space. Her physicality however often mismatches the melody, a clear disconnect between her intentions and the timbre of her overly feminine soprano tone.
Concept runs rife in this production – Evans has a keen sense of where the story needs to move to. Kitty Callister brings shabbiness to an immersive set that envelopes the audience. But the problem harks back to the reduced script, which leaves no room for anyone or anything to breathe. The audience are swept up in a Romani style folk song and dance to the foster home where Vixen is first assaulted by the lecherous Forester (Ivan Ludlow), who can be found clad in a wife beater and with a voice too tonal for Janáček’s anti-melodic lines.
Ludlow has a light opera style, more in keeping with a musical than the classical alternative, despite some sweeter retrospective passages at the end of the production. His presence is the pathetic side of menacing, the middle-aged husband that can beat up a defenceless creature but wouldn’t dare stand up to an equal.
There is barely time to settle into the worn, battered living room until the action forces the audience to get up again (with considerable difficulty) and move on to the next act – a junkyard littered with Stella cans where Vixen finally finds true love. Except the man of her dreams appears as an entitled volunteer (Robin Bailey) who, composed of more money than sense, throws Pret sandwiches to the audience and takes pity on our protagonist by buying her a McDonalds. It’s stereotypical charity from one end of the class spectrum to the other.
The story swiftly moves from love, to pregnancy, to death – that’s a lot to cover in under an hour, although even this time seems to drag given Bailey’s questionable operatic capabilities. The lower registers are fine, but Bailey lacks enough control to reach the top notes with any kind of confidence and is forced to resort to falsetto on more than one occasion simply to get the sound out. More and more Vixen starts to resemble an immersive musical and less a contemporary, progressive opera.
The ending to Evans’ interpretation however is exactly the anti-romance that Janáček initially requested. A dead heroine, a baby that goes to a wholly unsavoury family and a father that disappears into the mist, never to be seen again. Not quite the Disney ending that romantic operas so often demand, but one that suits the modern interpretation of this production. So much homelessness doesn’t end happily and Vixen is a staunch example of the finale that people seldom want but all too often get.
Vixen is a production that pushes at boundaries. It fuses styles; it plays with the audience’s interaction to the sound; it presents interaction that immerses the observer further into the story. But it also lacks depth, misses out too much background and doesn’t compensate with enough quality performances to plaster over the cracks.