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, 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.
The Cunning Little Vixen is currently touring to Birmingham, Llandudno, Southampton, Milton Keynes and Plymouth.
SP: David, I believe you first produced The Cunning Little Vixen in 1980 as part of a large cycle of Janáček operas, staged in collaboration with Welsh National Opera when you were Director of Production at Scottish Opera?
DP: Yes, correct. We did five pieces; The Cunning Little Vixen, Kát’a Kabanová, the Makropulos Case, From the House of the Dead and Jenůfa.
That was tremendously pioneering at the time and I wonder how it feels to you now, as Artistic Director of WNO, to be bringing Vixen back to the company?
Well, I suppose it might seem like an act of vanity! But actually the point really was that, having been asked to do Lulu, I’ve always wanted to bring those two pieces together, so it seemed like the perfect moment to revive this, well, rather ancient production!
But do you find that each time it’s done, you come to the production with a combination of experience and fresh eyes so it becomes new – or renewed – in a tangible way?
Yes, and also the Vixen has, as it so happens, matured into a classic – although it wasn’t necessarily perceived as such at the time as I recall. And, probably, we got better at doing it. It’s a complicated piece to mount and we put it on in quite unusual circumstances in Edinburgh – it was part of the Festival where preparation time is always very short because there are lots of other things going on. And the piece has matured in the ears and eyes of the audience I think; all these pieces seemed very strange and difficult at the time to many people and now the Vixen is evidently a kind of classic. And of course it’s been a very interesting perspective doing it alongside Lulu because everybody says, ‘oh, it’s such a relief to come back to Vixen’!
Do they? That’s interesting!
Because it’s musically so much easier. Although people – I think particularly orchestral players – used always to regard Vixen as difficult because of the way Janáček writes. He’s not a very efficient writer – more to the point, I think he’s not really interested in efficiency.
No, and he writes difficult parts in extremes of register for the instruments.
Yes, and he wrote things down in a way which could have been done more simply. But that’s all part of his energy and what he’s doing. I remember, one conductor said to me, well the whole point is that these scores should feel difficult to play; they’re not meant to be comfortable in the way that you might think of, say, Brahms’s symphonies as comfortable to play.
It seems ironic that Janáček’s been criticised for so-called ‘lack of technique’ and yet, in terms of dramatic vision, he achieves an extraordinary meld of music and drama. I think you once described Vixen as real Gesamtkunstwerk?
It’s the perfect Gesamtkunstwerk, yes. Because it’s the best piece of complex twentieth century dramaturgy in terms of the accuracy with which he uses all the different media of an opera composer; all the different forms are used with brilliant accuracy, exactly saying what they need to say in the right moment and with terrific concision. I think, dramaturgically, it’s a much better work than Lulu because he just focuses on what needs to be said, even when it’s pure comedy or slapstick – he’s always focuses on the point of the piece.
And tremendously innovative in terms of the genesis and the writing of the piece [which was based on a cartoon], incorporating elements of ballet, with children on-stage and choruses off-stage and so on?
Yes, and using this kind of collage technique where scenes are juxtaposed one against the other without necessarily being in a clear linear direction – every possibility of an opera composer’s tool kit is used with just terrific appropriateness.
As you say, Vixen’s become a much-loved part of the repertoire but it’s not a straightforward, pre-lapsarian, sentimental vision by any means is it? It’s multi-layered in its symbolism.
Very, very much so. It’s obviously a discussion about what is the role of nature, or of animal nature, within man – particularly sexuality, which is what makes it such an interesting comparison with Lulu. And it’s the way in which Janáček combines these themes. You have these animals who exist in actually quite a brutal, amoral universe in which they’re as much predators as victims – which is, of course, something that’s true about nature; something that’s frequently forgotten in our supermarket, clingfilm-wrapped world. But also he’s talking about the way in which the necessary limitations that human beings put on their animal feelings – and particularly their sexuality – to some extent atrophies into an inability to express those desires or those feelings, those necessities. So you also have a whole gallery of human characters who basically exhibit various traits of depression – and, of course, with great wit and intelligence he shows that the animals that have been domesticated also exhibit those same tendencies. So that, you know, we have these men who sit around in the pub fantasising about this woman who’s the sort of Lulu-Vixen equivalent.
Terynka – but we also have the fact that the dog is howling away because he doesn’t know what love is and has a frustrated love-life – with the Cock and the Hens also exhibiting some kind of gender-dysfunctional society. So, on the one hand, the human beings are criticized, or mocked even, for their repression and their up-tightness. But, on the other hand, in the guise of the Forester, we see a human character who is also granted a kind of amazing epiphany in the moment of his death. And, on top of that, there is a very optimistic, cyclical view of nature and rebirth – so it’s very, very complex. Written and composed, of course, by a man himself in his early seventies by this point, and clearly grappling with his own idea of mortality – as well as his own perhaps spasmodically functioning erotic life! It’s one of the most profound statements, I think, by any artist about the human condition in a huge range of ways.
It’s remarkable how Janáček manages to shift the dramatic focus so smoothly from Vixen Sharp Ears, once she’s been shot dead, onto the Forester and his final epiphany. So there’s no sense of negativity or loss when she dies; it’s about the totality of the cycle.
Yes, it’s a terrific trick to pull off, isn’t it? – to kill your main character in the first scene of the last act and give yourself time to really discuss the fact that life or death is not the most important thing but that actually it’s the continuum of nature which is important! A huge statement to make I think.
Throughout the opera, Sharp Ears basically gets away with taunting men about their sexuality – until the point at which she’s shot, when she goes a step too far perhaps?
Well, I have analysed this point in the past and it’s quite clear why she’s shot, in the sense that she herself has been corrupted by her contact with human beings. Having received, as she says, her primary education at the hands of the Forester, she meets this figure of the Poacher who is, in my view, a kind of satyr, being halfway between man and animal – which is why he’s able to kill her, of course. When she meets him, she gets carried away by an entirely human preoccupation which is spouting a whole lot of bullshit about justice and cruelty to foxes. Whereas she should have remembered that when she spouted the same stuff to the Hens, it was a prelude to her murdering them! And so, what she forgets in this moment of being distracted into human moral bullshit, is the essential rule of self-preservation; she hangs around to harangue and politicise at the Poacher and therefore gets killed – well quite right too! That’ll teach her to get on her soapbox!
She gets on her soapbox quite a lot in the opera doesn’t she?
Mostly to entirely spurious ends. I mean, she harangues the poor Badger about his plutocrat accommodation and promptly uses that to evict him and move into his sett herself! So she’s absolutely shameless in that way and that’s why it isn’t a tragedy when she’s shot. It’s just part of the ongoing battle between different sections of the natural order, of which the men and women are also part.
Terynka never actually appears in the opera but the men spend lots of time sitting around wishing she was in their lives.
Another stroke of extraordinary originality! Terynka is a leading character, but she never appears! She is the fantasy figure that haunts all these men in their mid-life crises, their impotence. The piece is a paean to the urges of nature and how essential they are and as part of reproduction and all of that. So the Forester’s epiphany is in no way a resignation in any kind of bogus religious way of giving up on stuff.
No, it seems pantheist in a raw, primeval sense. And, again, optimistic but not sentimental!
Yes, I think the whole, last act is absolutely amazing compositionally. Because, first of all, you get Sharp Ears’ death and then Janáček composes a kind of elegy which manages to be very moving without being in the least bit sentimental. This builds into a celebration of life and death – and I think also of hunting; of one of the primary human instincts – or, of course, animal instincts. And the hunter and the hunted are there as two poles of that. Then this moment of joy rooted in the truth of nature morphs into an extraordinary final Inn scene, which is a scene of farewells and resignation, full of human repression. So we’ve had this wild man of the woods, the Poacher, who’s shot his gun off, with Sharp Ears lying dead as a result, and then we meet these morbid, repressed men sitting around regretting things they’ve not done or missed or women they haven’t slept with or whatever. Again, Janáček succeeds in taking this sort of banal and rather despicable, trivial scene and elevating it into an extraordinary musical expression of compassion for these rather pathetic human beings and the way they talk about the past and about who’s no longer in the parish. Just one word is used to describe the absent Parson when the Innkeeper’s wife says he’s ‘lonely’; just one word – and there’s a moment of silence where they look at his empty chair. It’s incredibly poignant and brilliantly done – and all in twelve bars or something! Then it erupts into this magnificent final epiphany for the Forester. It’s an amazing achievement to have packed in that amount of perfectly judged emotion and understanding about human nature and about nature itself.
You know, the more full of bullshit we become about animals the more significant the piece becomes. We used to have what I would describe as a great ritual about the truth of human beings and animals, which was our whole visual pageant of fox hunting. But we vandalised that in the most pathetic way for totally spurious reasons. Whether you like hunting or not is irrelevant; the fact is, it did express a truth that cannot be found on a supermarket shelf with a plastic-wrapped chicken – that we are in a cruel universe! Behaviour in nature is not perfect and is not politically correct – it’s not sanitised, it’s predatory, that’s the way it is. If you’re so fastidious that you can’t put up with those truths, then you try to suppress them and I think, you know, that’s dishonest.
For me, that deeper, amoral essence of human and animal nature comes across very powerfully in the opera and there’s certainly none of that ‘animals – good, humans – bad’ nonsense that you get when people sentimentalise about animals or nature generally. I wonder, too, if there’s something here about Janáček’s use of what’s been described as ‘speech melody’; whether his pithy use of simple, repeated phrases and musical ostinati coming out of the Czech language is also somehow part of his getting to the crux of things?
Well, I’ve often used this idea that the cellular development of Janáček’s music starts from these speech patterns – he really uses that to create the DNA of his characters; it’s as if he’s writing down a sort of DNA code of who these people actually are! The originality of his work as an opera composer is just staggering. If you take the first scene – even putting aside the way in which it moves in and out of ballet and so on as a way of laying out the opening of an opera – it’s incredibly astute dramaturgically. When the Forester comes on, he’s tired and hot and wants to lie down and have a nap, and he talks about how his rifle has become his sweetheart. So the whole idea of the atrophy of human erotic activity is right there in the very first few words of the opera. And the interesting thing is that the music doesn’t accompany the Forester at all! The music is furiously energetic, sparkling with detail like a sort of Bartókian insect world, describing the forest buzzing and heaving with life and energy. And here’s this guy who comes on and sort of says ‘oh my God, it’s hot and [yawns and stretches] I want to lie down and my missus won’t notice, she’s a good wife, and anyway my rifle’s really my sweetheart….[snores]’. And so he’s in a completely different tempo to the whole orchestra. If that was Berg, people would have written essays and chapters about it – but it’s just Janáček’s instinctive way of describing two things at once in the way he’s setting the scene!
Janáček has still not really been admitted to the ‘great pantheon’ of the modernists has he, despite his extraordinary innovations?
It’s taken Boulez many many years to get round to Janáček. Finally he has done some in the last few years!
It’s taken him a long while indeed and, from a music-history point of view, there’s still a lingering, ridiculous sort of idea that anybody outside a perceived central Austro-German strand is somehow peripheral to musical development.
Oh it’s a kind of racism. The Germans don’t think anybody Czech can be serious – that they’re sort of whimsical.
I think Sibelius suffers from this problem too.
Definitely. Certainly, in Vienna people still don’t take Sibelius seriously because Mahler didn’t.
No, and nor did Adorno. And, despite his tremendous creative developments it seems to me that Janáček’s worth is still in some ways not fully appreciated, operatically. I was wondering who, of contemporary composers – if anyone – might be said to be taking up his dramatic mantle in any way do you think?
Yes – I don’t know. I wouldn’t know who to point to. But we in the UK, as a peripheral operatic nation, have done much better by Janáček than many of the central operatic nations. I guess that we have an innate sympathy – though it is of course ridiculous to regard the Czechs as peripheral, when you think of the richness of their operatic repertoire – but in terms of this Germano-Austrian issue he is peripheral of course. I remember arguing that was one of the reasons why it was really necessary for John Tyrell to write his massive two-volume tome on Janáček. Because it was necessary to thump these great books onto the table and say ‘this is a composer who deserves this amount of space on your library shelves’!
So, in terms of putting Vixen alongside Lulu, that makes for a very interesting dialogue it seems to me.
That’s part of the point of twinning them and actually of asserting as I think I have – probably unwisely! – that of the two I think Janáček is by far the superior composer – in operatic terms at any rate.
Even with Wozzeck? I mean, putting aside Lulu perhaps?
Well, as you know I think Wozzeck is a kind of perfect opera so I mean obviously Berg is a very very good composer. But what Lulu exposes is that he is not a dramatist in the way that Janáček is. Because, faced with intractable material he doesn’t know how to sort it out, whereas look at what Janáček did, with Vixen coming from a cartoon and with House of the Dead being based on a great, rambling Dostoyevsky novel about people in a prison; how he just grips that and turns it into a musical-dramatic text.
Actually I have a sort of leap-frogging theory about Janáček’s operatic development. He wrote a series of what I call conventional works – conventional for Janáček anyway – with Jenůfa, Kát’a and Makropulos; although Makropulos has an odd content, it’s structure is a straightforward three-act play and it has a beginning and a middle and an end and tells a narrative story. Similarly, Kát’a is based on a play – it could be an Ibsen or other bourgeois play – and Jenůfa is also structured in a linear fashion and is a kind of final installation in the Czech tradition of operas about village life. But in between these operas come much stranger works, with Osud and The Excursions of Mr Brouček, which are hugely ambitious following Jenůfa. Osud still today is a hugely ambitious piece of dramaturgy, with flashbacks and a kind of collage drama pulling together choruses and a massive cast and little fragments – I mean it’s a film script really. And Brouček of course is a very complex double satire structure in which the satirising person, Mr. Brouček, is himself satirised. But Janáček encountered such trouble in composing and structuring these two pieces, let alone getting them performed and accepted, that he thinks, ‘Oh crikey, I can’t go on like this’ – so then comes Kát’a, which was a retreat in dramaturgical terms. Then he thinks ‘ok, now I’m ready to try again,’ and then comes Vixen. Then he retreats again with Makropulos before having a last, final fling with House of the Dead. Well, I don’t suppose it worked out quite so neatly as that! – but you can see that sort of leap-frogging movement in his life.
Yes, that’s really interesting – you can see a real alternate leap and retrenchment there. And, in that way, Janáček’s hugely innovative drive just kept going right to the end.
You know, by the time he’d written House of the Dead, Janáček had pushed the genre as far as it was ever going to go in the twentieth century – there’s nothing in Benjamin Britten that’s as ambitious. So, apart from Shostakovich – the other person who pushed the genre in the same period with the Nose – nobody in the twentieth century went beyond what Janáček wrote; nobody.
David, thank you very much for speaking with me, it’s been a fascinating discussion.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis