Glyndebourne, East Sussex; St John's, Smith Square, London
The tree that fills the stage in Glyndebourne's new Cunning Little Vixen could have been twisted by one almighty hand from a giant bunch of twine: contorted and knotted, yet rooted deep in the soil for generations to come. With some deft squeezing of perspective, a steep path curves away to an invisible horizon as if sprouting magically from the upper branches. As you would guess for an opera about the cycle of nature, the tree duly acquires green fronds, turns golden, stands bare and finds itself swathed in pink spring blossom as bright as the pictures in a Bohemian nursery book.
Janácek's 1924 work – short, rhapsodic and pantheistic – stitches together several stories in a patchwork of quick-fire musical action and rapid dialogue. With a cast of humans playing animals, except for those who play humans, it's tricky to pull off, a constant duel of schmaltz and ferocity, sentiment and gore. Janácek made his own libretto out of a serialised, illustrated novel. Having grumbled last week about a live horse on the Royal Opera House stage, I will go easy on Glyndebourne's furry beasties, even though quite often it was impossible to sort out the hybrid zoology. Was that a squirrel or a bluebottle? Search me. They all rape and kill, even the sweet child in a bathing suit and swimming cap (frog) or the man with long dreadlocks (a badger, of course).
Melly Still's staging, designed with folkloric charm by Tom Pye and atmospherically lit by Paule Constable, wins enough plus points to balance out the minuses. The action is often chaotic and unfocused. There is no allowance made for the speed at which the text moves. Lacking the requisite fluency in Czech – feeble, I know – one had to cling on to the surtitles at the risk of missing the action. The shooting of the Vixen passed almost without notice, though this may be the point: another ordinary day in the genocidal war of man and beast.
Musical standards, however, under the direction of Vladimir Jurowski, were exceptional. The resident London Philharmonic Orchestra made the most of their ravishing orchestral interludes. Each effect or sound remained glittering and discrete. This is a score that gleams rather than glows. Jurowski kept a tight rein and provided good support for the ensemble of singers, few of whom had large voices. As Vixen, Lucy Crowe was spirited and unbiddable, shaggily and scruffily dressed and flicking her foxy red tail with wanton appetite. Emma Bell's cool and lubricious Fox, William Dazeley's Harasta, Jean Rigby (Owl, Forester's Wife) and Sergei Leiferkus (Forester) led a reliable cast.
Without pressing the symbolic connection too far, Glyndebourne evidently chose their season opener with intent. Continuity and change are current preoccupations. As Gus Christie notes in the programme, first his grandparents and then his parents founded and developed Glyndebourne. More than seven decades on, traditions "remain fundamentally the same" but the idyllic Sussex venue has to be competitive. Renewal is never easy. In the past year, as well as major staff changes and a visual rebranding, a wind turbine has been put to work despite local complaints. Visible on the hill but elegant, it is part of Glyndebourne's ambition to achieve 90 per cent of its energy from renewable sources.
All this activity may seem incidental. Yet the way opera companies, large or small, public or private, conduct themselves offstage as well as on is central to their ethos. Anyone who followed the kerfuffle at the Metropolitan Opera last week, which made front-page news in the New York Times, will shudder to see how true this is. In case you missed it: in a Canute moment, the general manager, Peter Gelb, tried to suppress negative reviews in the respected house magazine, Opera News. A viral outcry forced him, within hours, to rescind. It is hard to predict whether he can recover his dignity. Potential donors dislike this kind of folly at the top. In contrast, Glyndebourne's open attitude, its acknowledgement of hurdles and difficulties, may prove wise.
The 28th Lufthansa festival of baroque music took place last week with a timely emphasis on "contests, competitions and the harmony of nations". Stealing a laurel from others who hoped they might get there first, the festival mounted the UK premiere of Vivaldi's opera L'Olimpiade, an everyday story of ancient gamesome Olympic folk. His operas are enjoying, belatedly, the sort of compulsive re-evaluation already directed at Handel. Ever prolific, Vivaldi claimed to have written 94, of which around a third survived and a growing handful are known today.
First performed in Venice in February 1734, L'Olimpiade tells of two rivals for the princess Aristea, whose hand in marriage is the victor's prize, though we never get to see the race. A lively cast led by Stephen Gadd, who was outstanding as King Clistene, and the racy, alert musicians of La Serenissima, directed by violinist Adrian Chandler and harpsichordist James Johnstone, brought the piece to burgeoning if long-winded life. Elaborate plot tangles, disguises and near suicide are leavened by energetic string writing and a few explosive showpiece arias. Mhairi Lawson as Aminta the tutor, an otherwise minor role, had the two best arias, which she delivered with verve.
The same musicians will give a staged version at the Bath festival on Wednesday. Live on Radio 3 from London's Queen Elizabeth Hall tomorrow you can hear the "pasticcio" version consisting of music by 16 of the many composers who set Metastasio's original libretto. Next month Garsington Opera completes its pioneering trio of Vivaldi operas with its own staging of L'Olimpiade conducted by Laurence Cummings. Then we can put this piece back in its box for another few centuries, unless Rio wants to stage it lambada-style in 2016.
You might bear in mind, as you rush panting to see the Olympic flame pass the bottom of a street near you, an American study on how music can speed up athletic performance. The Ethiopian distance runner Haile Gebrselassie broke Olympic records by training to the techno-song Scatman, which has a bpm of 135. What would be his time if he replaced it with Vivaldi's Siam navi all'onde algendi from L'Olimpiade – running at, say, 160bpm as calculated from my armchair? That's your sporting tip for the week. I'm off to try it.
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