New English translation by David Pountney
Welsh National Opera, Wales Millennium Centre, 24 February 2013
Conductor: Lothar Koenigs
Director: David Pountney
Revival Director and Revival Choreographer: Elaine Tyler-Hall
Designer: Maria Bjørnson
Lighting Designer: Nick Chelton
Original Choreographer: Stuart Hopps
Cast includes: Jonathan Summers / Sophie Bevan / Julian Boyce / Michael Clifton-Thompson / Meriel Andrew / Sarah Castle / Laurence Cole / Richard Angas / Alan Oke / David Stout / Maddy Carver / Josh Olsen / Connor Dowling.
Janáček was reputedly delighted with the Brno premiére of his seventh opera, The Cunning Little Vixen, in November 1924. The following year, a subsequent, new production took place in Prague; a production about which he had reservations – and staged in a cultural environment much less sympathetic to his music – but which, nonetheless, led to the first broadcast of one his operas. By now, Janáček was already in his seventies but was experiencing a remarkable late creative surge, composing at a staggering rate to build upon the success and recognition he had only recently achieved for the first time in Prague, when a revised version of his third opera, Jenůfa, was staged there in 1916. That, belated, success had been hard won; critics such as the influential Zdeněk Nejedlý were vociferous in their disapproval of Janáček’s style and methods, condemning, amongst other things, what they saw as a lack of technique in his use of ‘speech melodies’ based on the Czech language to convey the inner worlds of operatic characters.
Nejedlý in particular continued his outspoken attacks, but it was not only Janáček’s detractors who were sometimes slow to grasp the genius of his musical-dramatic innovations; his close friend and German translator Max Brod was disturbed by the inclusion of animals and children in The Cunning Little Vixen and took it upon himself to adapt the work along more conservative lines. Finally, the huge success of a Komische Oper production by Walter Felsenstein in Berlin 1956 established Vixen as Janáček had conceived it; a work of profound, multi-layered symbolism as well as a delightfully optimistic, magic-realist tale.
Tonight’s vintage production by David Pountney (Revival Director/Choreographer Elaine Tyler-Hall) expressed symbolic scope and joyful celebration in equal measure, showing why this staging has become a much-loved classic around the world since its première at WNO in 1980 in collaboration with Scottish Opera. The energy and ebullience of Janáček’s score was vividly expressed by the alternate stridency and lyricism of Lothar Koenig’s orchestra and in Sophie Bevan’s beautifully observed Vixen; a role encapsulating a rich emotional world as well as Janáček’s deeper themes of life and death as a positive cycle, and how animals and human beings share an essentially amoral nature within that cycle.
These themes are timeless and the production itself has stood up extremely well to the passage of time, making a superb counterpart to Berg’s Lulu in this Spring’s ‘free spirits’ season at WNO. In the substantial programme booklet, John Tyrell draws a fascinating analogy between Janáček’s Vixen and Shakespeare’s late tragicomedies and, indeed, there were shades of Ariel in the other-worldly, balletic Dragonfly (Connor Dowling), whilst the stage set and action at the same time recalled to mind the fantasy-realist Shakespearean adaptations commissioned by the BBC in the seventies and eighties. In that sense, Pountney’s production is also of its time – but it is none the worse for that; part of its enduring power stems from his adroit entwining of character and action with Janáček’s deeply evocative music in the most natural way, led by the score itself and bringing a sense of choreography to the entire drama as well as to the overt dance sequences.
For today’s audience, there was plenty of wit as well as wisdom to be found in Pountney’s new English translation of the libretto. Slapstick is an important part of this opera and Pountney embraces it with boyish enthusiasm, adding to Janáček’s ‘exit, pursued by a bear’ comedy a layer of up-to-date satirical sophistication; the Vixen, for example, is described as a ‘rabid feminist’ and the wonderfully comic Hens repeat brainlessly over and over her (manifestly not to be trusted) cry for them to be ‘li-be-ra-ted’ from slavish drudgery.
Despite the idyllic mise-en-scène and the many children hopping about in animal guise (clear voices and touching performances abounding in more ways than one), Pountney is entirely focused on Janáček’s unsentimental vision of the continuum of life and death; a vision in which neither anthropomorphism (beyond practical necessities of costume) nor serious political allegory in the sense of Animal Farm have a place. The curmudgeonly and repressed males (both human and animal, with the exception of the Fox, lyrically sung by Sarah Castle in trouser-role) might seem to make for obvious critical targets on Janáček’s part but, evidently enlisting his own experience of approaching mortality, the composer manages to ensure not so much our sympathy for these characters as individuals, but a deeper understanding of the predicament they share, through his combination of tight dramatic manoeuvre and wittily succinct dialogue.
The hunt scene in Act III, in which the Vixen pursues and kills the Hare (Caitlin Parry-Jones), is simply and frankly enacted as a fundamental truth of nature – as is the ensuing death of the Vixen herself by the Poacher’s gun (eloquently handled by David Stout). This is a narrative development that Janáček added to the original tale; in the cartoon and subsequent short stories on which he based his libretto, the Vixen survives but, by managing to kill her off without undue tragedy, Janáček lifts the story onto an altogether more mythic plane and sets the scene for her human opposite, the Forester, who captured her as a cub, to give voice to a final and profoundly pantheist vision of the oneness of nature. On this occasion, a roughness of vocal tone from Forester Jonathan Summers made his final epiphany fall slightly flat, lending the text a didactic air in places; one wonders whether performing the opera straight through without the interval between Acts II and III might better preserve both spell and energy right through to the final celebration scene.
But it would take a miserable cynic indeed to give undue weight to any such marginal concerns. The depth and near perfection of Pountney’s production, the delightfulness of the performances all round – and the sheer uplifting generosity of this wonderful piece from a composer seemingly devoid of self-pity – can only be savoured and applauded.
Banner photo of Sophie Bevan by Catherine Ashmore