The forest is being clear cut, its towering stands of fir collapsing to earth like fallen banners. Nature must be conquered, compelled to yield to humanity’s will. The world of the wild is less than overawed, a local overseer’s loaded shotgun notwithstanding. A crotchety badger claims a stack of logs as his private residence. A quick-witted pair of foxes raises a mischievous brood of cubs in the shadow of hastily assembled woodsmens’ huts. Insects buzz and and beetle about, oblivious to the obsessive activity around them, cliquish and quarrelsome as ever. A frog croaks disrespectfully. Toadstools stubbornly continue to sprout.

Flora and fauna acutely anthropomorphized; humans, if not entirely rendered animalistic, then certainly dethroned, pitiful figures ruled by obsessive passions — intractable, violent, unpredictable.

The Cunning Little Vixen, pioneering Czech modernist Leoš Janáček’s enchanted fable of loss and longing, first presented in 1924, both captivates and troubles, bounded by sunlight and darkness; a measured musical morality play; a timeless telling of brittle truths. Directed by Jamie Manton, the Canadian Opera Company’s winter season opener, a 2022 remount from English National Opera, throws Janáček’s tale of a forester and his perennial nemesis, a vixen who will not be controlled, into stark contemporary focus.

The Cunning Little Vixen (Příhody lišky Bystroušky — “Tales of Vixen Sharp Ears”). A full frontal assault on patriarchy. A ringing call for labour reform. A declaration of women’s rights. Janáček, the modest music teacher from Brno with a passion for Slavic folk tunes, the scholarly recluse who never ventured more than a handful of kilometres beyond his native Region of Moravia, proved stunningly prescient in his preoccupation with any manner of compelling 21st century socio-political crises.

Environmental devastation; the destruction of natural habitat; ecological myopia, themes admittedly not found in the composer’s original self-penned libretto are given urgent — and not inappropriate — voice in Manton’s vivid, clear-eyed staging. Janáček, a lifelong lover of nature, would surely have approved.

Adapted by the composer/librettist from a popular illustrated novella published as a serialized comic strip of sorts in the Czech newspaper, Lidové noviny (“The People’s News”), The Cunning Little Vixen, as realized in the COC’s current presentation, pays considerable homage to the opera’s graphic roots. Costuming is key, designer Tom Scutt’s extravagant creations as commanding as they are cartoonish.

An irritating mosquito, peskily portrayed by Wesley Harrison, sports a rapier-like proboscis. A rather taciturn frog, a hip-hopping Joel Glickman Rosen, is all yawning mouth and bulging eyes. An arrogant rooster, splendidly inhabited by Adam Luther, is a picture of vanity, crowned and waistcoated and slickly mustached. A flock of outrageously feathery, frolicsome chickens flap and strut, allowed —quite unexpectedly — to range free in Manton’s depiction of the bitingly satirical henhouse scene. In Janáček’s original stage directions, a rather less merciful Vixen, exasperated by the chickens’ reluctance to seize the opportunity to escape, kills them one by one after dispatching their oppressor, the rooster.

Tradition is not necessarily an immutable objective in opera. Artistic effectiveness matters more.

Appearing as the Vixen, Halifax-based soprano, Jane Archibald, a frequent visitor to the COC’s Four Seasons Centre, unleashes a Sharp Ears of great dash and daring, Janáček’s clipped, speech-inflected recits and ariosos sitting comfortably at the centre of her mellow middle voice. Rebellious and fiercely independent, love leaves the Vixen reeling when it suddenly surprises her in the form of a raffish fox, appealingly portrayed by mezzo Ema Nikolovska. Jsem-li opravdu tak krásná? Co je na mně tak krásného? (“Am I really so beautiful? What is so special about me?”), Archibald murmurs to herself, the pair’s ensuing duet an exquisitely tender moment of enormous beauty.

British baritone Christopher Purves sings the Forester, a commanding, supremely centred vocal presence charged with equal measures of actorly enterprise and poignancy. Gifted with the opera’s only true aria, Janáček’s towering anthem to the inevitability of time, Je to pohádka či pravda? (“Is it a fairy tale or is it all true?”), Purves fills the FSC with bittersweetness, his character gripped by reminiscence. Alone in the forest with his memories, an old man is made young again, his thoughts tumbled and glowing as he recalls his youth. And the eternal joy of unspoiled nature.

Singing the roles of Schoolmaster and Priest, perennial regulars at a nearby rough and ready tavern, tenor Harrison — appearing in a double role like so many other cast members — and bass-baritone Giles Tomkins, both largely bereft of solo opportunities given the compactness of Janáček’s vocal settings, hugely entertain nevertheless, tireless sources of shameless physical comedy. Farce prevails, the pratfall-prone duo plagued by a mutual history of hopeless infatuation with a fiery free-spirit, the ravishing Terynka, more womanly fantasy figure than physical reality as subsequent drunken events ultimately prove.

Bass-baritone Alex Halliday is the Poacher, a costumed macho muscleman with a sturdy, prepossessing voice to match.

Musically, The Cunning Little Vixen inhabits a unique compositional space, Janáček mingling and moulding any number of intersecting folkloric modalities with surging classical harmonies into a coherent blend of the purely operatic and the symphonic. Bold lashings of dance music top the mix. Occupying a historical middle ground between the age of Romanticism — tonal and sweeping — and that of Modernism — changeable and expressionistic — the opera launches the listener into a realm of pulsing emotion, a sonic kaleidoscope, never static, vocals yielding to lush extended orchestral interludes, infinitely varied, frequently rapturous.

Leading a charged Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, resident music director Johannes Debus delivers an appropriately dynamic, thrillingly resonant rendering of Janáček’s gloriously evocative score.

Members of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, choristers and supernumeraries alike, tirelessly animate the proceedings, scattering theatrical magic the length and depth of the FSC’s sprawling stage, scampering, flying, scooter-riding scene stealers each and every one of them.

This Cunning Little Vixen runs away with your heart.