A cold, grey day on the Sussex downs for the start of a new Glyndebourne season, and a confused, hugely disappointing new Janácek production to go with it. The Cunning Little Vixen has been seen here before – in the 1970s, directed by Jonathan Miller. The new version is entrusted to Melly Still, presumably after the success of her Rusalka three years ago, but whatever the merits of that production, Still seems to be at a loss as what to do with Janácek's less expansive, much pacier drama.
In an opera that deals with two parallel worlds, the human and the animal, the relationship between them is never dealt with satisfactorily here. Still seems unable to take the portrayals of the creatures of the forest at anything like face value, and by trying to anthropomorphise them as much as possible, loses their identities altogether. Lucy Crowe's Vixen and Emma Bell's Fox are costumed up like a pair of 1960s hippies who clutch giant-sized foxes' brushes to remind them and us of who they are, but it's a tiresome and awkward bit of signalling. Other characters – Owl, Jay, Frog, Cricket, Mosquito – are so generalised it's hard to identify them, let alone place them in a story that is so muddied and confused by the frantic busyness on stage anyway.
The great comic set-pieces (the Vixen's eviction of the Badger from his home, the mayhem she creates among the Forester's hens) are poorly handled, and the sense of the Vixen's character – her quick-witted independence and feistiness – isn't projected at all until her encounter with her prospective mate in the second half.
Tom Pye's set is dominated by a bare tree that for the final scene erupts in bright pink flowers that seem to have been borrowed from a tacky production of Madame Butterfly, and after the opera has studiously avoided any sense of naturalism in the previous hour and a half, Willam Dazeley's poacher Harašta suddenly produces a very real-looking hare to bait his trap.
The lack of clear thinking carries over into the performances, with an insistence on singing the opera in Czech, when the cast only contains one Czech-born singer; diction is generally so poor it's impossible to tell what language is being used most of the time. Crowe and Bell do make some sort of sense of their duet, but Sergey Leiferkus's grizzled Forester is a cipher, and he fails to bring any presence to his final hymn to nature, in which Vladimir Jurowski's efficient yet chilly conducting lacks radiance, too.
• The Guardian is live streaming the 10 June performance beginning at 6.30pm. Details: guardian.co.uk/glyndebourne
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