Michael White’s classical news: The Cunning Little Vixen; Rigoletto; La Voix Humaine; Adam and Ivan Fischer

Thursday, 17th February — By Michael White

Sally Matthews credit Sigtryggur Ari Jóhannsson

Sally Matthews sings the title role in ENO’s new production of The Cunning Little Vixen. Photo: Sigtryggur Ari Johannsson

OPERAS tend to focus more on reckless passion than reflective wisdom. But a good (and actually great) example of the latter is Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen which opens this week in a new English National Opera production that promises to be something special – not least because the director, Jamie Manton, is a hot young talent whose work to date has been on a small scale but with a touch of genius about it. And my guess is that he’ll really get a chance to prove himself with this.

The Vixen is an opera that, until you see it, suggests something by Walt Disney. More than half the characters are animals – frogs, chickens, foxes, dogs – whose lives are raw and short but somehow more fulfilled than those of their immediate human neighbours (at least, as conceived by Janáček). So you’re presented with a sort of fairy tale that casts a spell of wonder and appeals to children, but is also deeply philosophical as it ponders the cycle of life with all its mysteries, disappointments, and moments of magic.

Janáček’s score is in fact magical from start to finish: one of the most radiantly beautiful compositions you’ll ever hear on an opera stage. And in the hands of ENO’s music director Martyn Brabbins, it will hopefully sound luminous. British soprano Sally Matthews takes the title role of the Vixen whose free spirit survives an abrupt death and passes down to her cubs as nature endlessly renews itself. All the show lacks is David Attenborough in a walk-on part (but you never know…). Runs Feb 18 to Mar 1. Booking: www.eno.org

Other opera this week includes a revival of Covent Garden’s recent Rigoletto: a not bad but slightly empty staging by Oliver Mears – worth seeing if you missed it last time round, though I personally wouldn’t want to see it again so soon. Runs Feb 18 to Mar 12. www.roh.org.uk

More interesting is a presentation at the Barbican of Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine that features the London Symphony Orchestra with Barbara Hannigan who, as I mentioned last week, is in residence with the orchestra doing her feisty double act of singing and conducting. At the same time.

In this case she’s also directing, because Voix Humaine is an opera – though it doesn’t require too much direction because there’s only one character: an unnamed woman who spends the entire duration of the piece on the phone to her unseen/unheard lover, being jilted by what (at the time when Jean Cocteau wrote the text in 1928) was the modern phenomenon of telecommunication.

As you might expect, she doesn’t take this well, and the narrative unfolds as 40 minutes of hysteria – made worse by crossed lines, interruptions by the operator, and all the things that happened in the days before digital. But don’t be put off: it’s a tour de force that pitches just the one “Human Voice”, as the title has it, against massively rich orchestrations that erupt and knock you sideways. And the end, of course, is tragic. Hannigan does it twice: by itself on Feb 23, and as part of a larger programme on Feb 24. Details: lso.co.uk

• It’s a rare thing to find two siblings who both become significant conductors, but that’s the case with Adam and Ivan Fischer who, by chance, are both at the Festival Hall this week, on successive evenings. Ivan is with his Budapest Festival Orchestra on Feb 18, for an all-Stravinsky evening that includes The Rite of Spring. Adam turns up the next night, conducting the LPO in a Mozart Requiem. Compare and contrast. southbankcentre.co.uk

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