The Cunning Little Vixen

Bystrouška, the vixen: L. Ágh
Gamekeeper: I. Kusnjer
Zlatohrbítek, wolf: A. Jahns
Schoolmaster: L. Ludha
Parish priest: R. Novák
Orchestra of the Teatro La Fenice
Conductor: Z. Pesko
Stage director: D. Pountney

Venezia, Palafenice

Leoš Janácek’s The Cunning Little Vixen received a rare run of Italian performances toward the end of the 1999 Teatro La Fenice season. Apart from an outing at Spoleto the year previous, the opera had not been seen in Italy since a 1958 edition at La Scala, per the Janácek listings in the program. The advent of supertitles should have been a boon for Janácek’s operas in Italy so that productions in original language could be easily imported, but various factors have militated against this happy possibility. First the plots are unfamiliar, and the text often comes at the listener thick and fast, the PalaFenice’s surtitle screen being unhelpful because it is rather high up. Another drawback for Italian audiences may be the stories themselves, which range from the sordid (Jenufa) to the bizarre (Makropulos Affair) and the depressing (From the House of the Dead), qualities that are equally rare in plays on Italian stages. The principal factor, however, may be simply that there have been no great advocates of Janácek’s music in Italy comparable to Sir Charles Mackerras, who for many years pioneered his operas in London and elsewhere in the English-speaking world. While The Cunning Little Vixen does not have some of the problems cited above, it instead proposes a rather unconventional moral order, reflecting Janacek’s pantheism. This coupled with the fable-type structure may possibly make it less appealing in Italy, although the PalaFenice audience was gave this opening night performance a warm reception.

The libretto has an unique literary source—a serialized, illustrated tale of Moravian villagers and talking animals that appeared in a Brno newspaper in 1920. Janácek added a few subversive emphases to Rudolf Tešnohlídek’s story but then extended it to emphasize the workings of nature. The local Gamekeeper captures a young fox and takes her home as a pet. Bystrouška causes all manner of havoc among the domestic animals, first inciting the hens to revolt against the rooster’s domination, then killing all the foul before escaping to the woods. Back in her element she wastes no time in intimidating the badger to abandon his cozy den; she quickly pairs up with the fox Zlatohrbítek to the delight of the other forest creatures. Smarting from his drinking friends’ gibes, the Gamekeeper tries in vain to recapture his wily vixen, who has by now raised a few litters of young cubs. Peddler Harašta finally dispatches Bystrouška for having stolen one chicken too many from him. In the poignant finale, the Gamekeeper meets up with one of Bystrouška’s offspring and recognizes the natural cycle of death and renewal.

Janácek’s music has the extraordinary quality of always sounding modern in spite of its age, and this opera is an excellent example. Sung dialogue set in a way to resemble speech contrasts with lush orchestral backdrop that erupts into robustness at the end of each scene. The listener is frequently torn between following the story line and wanting to hear unhampered the isolated instrumental parts in which Czech folk rhythms figure more prominently than long melodic themes. This creates a pleasant sort of tension that makes for an unusually vital experience. Unfortunately David Pountney’s direction had the unusual effect of crowding out the score. Some choices such as the Diaghilev-style movements for the Dragonfly and other animal characters worked well, while at other times hyperactivity combined with too many cute touches (a pair of curled reddish locks to stand for fox ears excepted) proved distracting. Pountney’s production, borrowed from Welsh National Opera, should be compared to the classic Sendak/Corsaro one at New York City Opera which allowed the sunny score to breathe without compromising its theatrical underpinnings. Maria Bjřrnson’s sets balanced stylization and naturalism in the forest and inn scenes, but her costumes featuring an argyle sweater for the fox and a yellow fringe frock for the vixen seemed peculiarly British. For this edition, nicely lit by Nick Chelton, the opera was divided into two rather than three acts.

This opera, like Janácek’s others, requires singing actors, and in this the casting was first rate. Ivan Kusnjer’s sympathetic Gamekeeper and Lívia Ágh’s feisty Bystrouška exemplified this approach. Other noteworthy participants were Annete Jahns (Zlatohrbítek the trouser-role wolf), Ludovít Ludha (Schoolmaster) and Richard Novák (Parish priest). Double casting, presumably following Janácek’s directions, provided revealing pairings: Kikola Mujailovic played both the Gamekeeper’s lascivious dog Lapák and Harašta the peddler that kills the vixen, while Gianluca Sorrentino was the pompous Rooster as well as innkeeper Pásek. The Fenice chorus under Giovanni Andreoli and the Piccoli Cantori Veneziani led by Mara Bortolato provided fitting support from the pit area. No stranger to Fenice audiences, conductor Zoltan Pesko led the superb orchestra in a vivacious interpretation. This opening night performance was part of the 1999 broadcast series from the PalaFenice.

David Lipfert

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