Photo credit: Richard Hubert-Smith, Cunning Little Vixen Lulu Welsh National Opera Free Spirits

Free Spirits (Lulu & The Cunning Little Vixen) | WNO

Jane Oriel reviews Welsh National Opera’s Free Spirits, a pair of productions comprising of Lulu and The Cunning Little Vixen, directed by David Pountney.

Certain people, considered to be Free Spirits, can have an unsettling effect on society. We envy their self appointed autonomy as they cast off restraint just to please themselves, while the rest of us put a lot of effort into ‘fitting in’. All we can do is observe with fascination as they play their cards right to the brink of deviancy. Frankly, they seem to be having more fun than us.

But what about us? Are we doomed to forever stand behind the great barrier rope? Shouldn’t this kind of ‘answer to no-one’ personal freedom be the ultimate goal for us all to grow towards? If everyone dedicated themselves to cultivating their psyches in pursuit of the Jungian individuation ideal, wouldn’t that be the trigger to release all of our true selves? Imagine it; free spirits one and all, with everyone trusting their elevated natures in an autocratous utopia.

Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a problem with that premise. Not everyone’s natures will be elevated, or want to pull in the same direction. Toes will tread on toes. Whether the ideal is socialist, capitalist or something in between, a level of co-operation is needed between all parties for society’s optimum runnings, but free spirits tend to come along and muck it all up. And who’s to say whose peccadilloes are worthy of envy and applause while others’ should be castigated? Alas it runs true all too often that the beautiful have many privileges.

Welsh National Opera present two works this spring under the banner, Free Spirits. Berg’s Lulu, the Pandora who opened that Box, is widely regarded as the greatest opera of the 20th Century. In director David Pountney’s almost feminine intuitive production, Swedish soprano Marie Arnet as lead, has lovers past, present and future tripping over themselves to possess her, each to their seemingly inevitable ruin. Portrayed with a vulnerable fragility, she nevertheless has a steely auto-focused ambition for squeezing life until either the pips, or she squeaks. This, unfortunately, she does and at the hands of Jack The Ripper too, just at the point where she is starting to develop a level of empathy towards human frailty.

The other half of the pairing is Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen and as one would expect, it’s much more than a folk story populated by fluffy animals. That aside, the enchanting woodland creatures make a Golden Ovidian spectacle and the cloak of imagery creates a rustication ideal of the countryside year’s harsh realities, in the same way that roses around the doors of hovels worked for the Victorian pot boiler artist. This independent female fox, played effervescently by Sophie Bevan, is armed with socialist ideals. Dressed like a Greenham Common protester, she takes to rolling on the ground, kicking her Doc-clad feet in the air in a less belligerent version of stamping her little feet. (She’s just gorgeous when she does that.)

Our beautiful eponymous ones live their lives as they interpret them, singeing their own palms as forces of nature, simultaneously the hottest, brightest stars, bringing illumination and heat wherever they step but there’s another side of the equation too; the potential for black hole chaos that can claw everything and everyone irrevocably back to Tohu and Bohu, but we can’t really hold Lulu and Sharp Ears Vixen responsible for the lemming-like responses of their devotees.

Lulu is, however, calculated in the conjuring up of her animal instincts, while Vixen just is. The way Lulu removes Dr Schön’s fiancé from the scene with a finely honed and ruthless precision is focused, selfish and merciless. Whilst dictating the letter for the spellbound sap who will break off his engagement, Lulu gives full expression to her ‘survival of the fittest’ nature, which prefigured as a snake in the Animal Tamer’s menagerie in Act 1.

Much has been written about human society’s eons-long struggle to overcome the primitive. An accepted definition of the very thing that makes us human is our daily struggle to subdue the animal within us, so as to stand upright and head, shoulders and Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, high above the carnal. That’s the plan anyway, but when any number pathologically stray towards a romanticised version of the conscience-free appetite our social infrastructure, as alluded to earlier, is in potential danger.

While both creatures are intoxicating, Vixen’s wilfulness is grounded in an honest practicality. Her socialism has no patience for the sex-worker hens, whom she slaughters after they refuse to walk through the door to liberty that she has opened by killing the Cock. Likewise, it was Badger’s own weakness that allowed himself to be duped into eviction by Vixen Sharp Ears.

Through the force of her personality, she unwittingly draws out the deficits and shortfalls in those, like the Forester, the Schoolmaster and the Poacher, who would dominate her. One by one, they create their own fantasy descriptions of her, personified as the spoken of but never seen Terynka, the manifestation of their ideals.

The desire to subjugate the kinetic creatures starts from a viewpoint of admiration that’s sobered into envy, then blackened by projection. Not every man (or woman as in the case of Countess Geschwitz’s slavish adoration of Lulu) wants death for the object of their desire but there’s no escaping the vexation. Both our elevated heroins are refused the gift of a natural lifespan and die at the hands of those whose actions are the results of their own failings. They grafted their own fragilities onto both females, creating of them vessels that shattered, no longer able to contain anything, let alone projections.

Free spirits are prime candidates for jealous interpretation of untrammelled passion but Anaïs Nin was one such real life free spirit who fortunately lived to tell her tales. Regarded both as a feminist pioneer and one of the finest writers of female erotica, the author of Delta of Venus (1977) and Little Birds (1979), conducted her life as an ongoing developmental study. Seemingly on a mission to stake her claim for the woman’s liberated sexual life laid bare by DH Lawrence, her life is a catalogue of seductions, affairs, broken taboos and somewhat unpalatable exploits, even for our day and age. By this statement, the seduction of both her analysts (one being Otto Rank, a former close colleague of Sigmund Freud) is not the allusion. Nor is it the sexual adventures she had in Paris with Henry Miller and his permissive circle in the early 1930s, which included a ménage à trois with Miller and his wife June, which would no doubt have been expressively creative with an eye to their mutual artworks. There are a pair of concurrent husbands to mention too, with divorce from the latter addition only coming about because her spouses’ tax return forms, on which both her aliases figured, were becoming a nightmare. No, the seriously uncomfortable episode is when we learn from her diaries that as an adult, she had an affair with her own father. Even though as one would expect, the circumstances leading to this situation were somewhat deep seated and complex, our society still regards incest as far beyond the pail, free spirit or no free spirit.

Nin kept a series of now mostly published journals over decades, in which she described her various trials, errors and empirical discoveries. As a key contributor to the development of her corner of feminism, she has done much for the wider acceptance that female sexual edacity is no different to male, even if in so doing, the lid to our collective Pandora’s Box has now burst off its hinges.

So how to handle both the real life and the figurative free spirits? What should we do with them? The operatic spirits are the easy part. Playing our part as the fourth wall, we have full liberty to envy, lust, laugh, despise and vicariously murder, should we wish, before purging ourselves emotionally at our heroines’ expense on the way to catharsis. It’s the trade off that all arts offers to one degree or another, but what to do about the real world’s rebellious darlings? The best advice is to stand well clear and sagely observe, while remembering what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians: ‘All things are lawful, but not everything is expedient’.


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David Pountney, Artistic Director of Welsh National Opera, is internationally celebrated for his many, pioneering productions of operas by Janáček. Ahead of the opening night of The Cunning Little Vixen and Lulu, in revival at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff as part of WNO’s ‘free spirits’ themed season, he spoke with Steph Power about the piece and about Janáček’s extraordinary achievement as the most innovative composer of music-drama in the twentieth century.


Jane Oriel is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.