Sir Simon Rattle said it inspired him to become an opera conductor when he was a student at the Royal Academy of Music and is still one of the pieces that can reduce him to tears – and it’s easy to see why. This semi-staged pantomimic three act opera (on Saturday June 29th at London’s Barbican) by Czech Leos Janacek took us on a seasonal tour of love, hope, old age and death in a magical forest setting that reminded us our happiness lies at one with nature not pitting ourselves against it.

The energy of the piece surged through Sir Rattle’s baton – that at times was almost electrifying – as he coordinated a mighty 81-strong piece orchestra with its strings, brass, woodwind and percussion sections that kept us captivated on a journey through the seasons. The drama of the human and animal lives in the cycle of the woods came to life in a skilfully directed balletic integrative screen and stage experience by Peter Sellars, renowned for his transformative interpretations and this was no exception, and enhanced by subtle and atmospheric lighting by designer Ben Zamora.

Exciting performances were given by soprano Lucy Crowe, who never once let the heightened emotional tension of the feisty vixen drop until she took her last breath, and bass-baritone Gerald Finley, who had a commanding presence as the forester.

Sir Rattle’s magic baton certainly drew a tear from the corner of my eye during a spell-binding crescendo that communicated a message of acceptance of the passing of time in each solid pluck of the strings and hope in the renewal of life in the heraldic repetitive beat of the drums. ‘It fills your heart to see the evening sun break through,’ said the forester as old age overtook him and new life stirred in the forest. And leaving the Barbican as the evening sun went down I couldn’t agree more.

Photo by Mark Allan

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