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Monday 4 June 2012

The Cunning Little Vixen at Glyndebourne


Janacek is very close to my heart, and there is absolutely no question for me that his operatic output is one of the finest contributions to the stage, musically and dramatically of any composer. While he does have a major following, it is likely that he will never be truly popular or a sure box office draw - his idiom is too gnarled and personal, too painful, too strange; the subjects are too odd, too unsentimental, too close to the bone; the main roles are the opposite of traditional operatic fair, and don't ever give an opportunity for vocal display or show boating and so the really major singers of each generation will only occasionally sing them. They also seem to present difficulties in staging for many directors because they're so compressed, so detailed and layered (though to me these things seem like gifts to an opera director.) Are they too real?

But what a treasure trove of riches they present, what a cabinet of curiosities, beauties, what an unfathomable range of expression and mood! Each one is so unlike the others as well in mood and feel, though Janacek's radiant voice and highly personal means of making music always shine through.

The Cunning Little Vixen is seen by many as a good entry point, though it's not without its difficulties. The lack of espressivo, eschewal of all operatic convention, and humorous, elliptical libretto may shock the unsuspecting customer. "What's going on here?" The wilful resistance to give the audience what it wants and expects, a Tosca's pain, a Butterfly's heartache, an Othello's jealousy, a Salome's depravity etc. etc. can seem to the Janacek neophyte like a stubborn refusal to bestow pleasure, like it's all going his way, and he's not holding up his end of the bargain. But familiarity with the idiom, his other music, and indeed each individual opera, reveals that he's just doing his own thing, in his own way, and that they have just as much to offer the sensitive, open minded listener as anything in the standard operatic repertoire.

Though I wasn't very keen on this production, the music making more than made up for it, and I am very very glad to have gone.

Melly Still returns to Glyndebourne after having made her opera directing debut in 2009 with Rusalka that other supreme Czech opera rooted in nature and the Bohemian forest (technically Janacek's forest is Moravian.) A few of the same problems that plagued the Dvorak are also problems here. The set is consistently underlit by Paule Constable (also the lighting designer on Rusalka), and though so often she's aiming for dusky glimmer and evening warmth the result it rarely comes off. More annoying is again the reluctance by Still to explore the psychological underpinnings of the work, or what it might mean. Like in Rusalka, any excuse to add a humorous sex scene is pounced upon by Still, but why is there here so little characterisation or differentiation between the characters? Why so little detail in the interactions?

The basic plot concerning the Vixen is well handled, and her capture, escape, courtship and death are all clearly delineated, and sometimes touchingly presented. There's often a lot of humour, and Still really chooses to play the piece for laughs. This is fine as much of the libretto is very funny, but the problem is that this is where her approach ends. The human scenes are muddled and confusing - for those not familiar with the opera/score/libretto (which is surely the majority of the audience), it's often extremely difficult to tell who is being addressed, and how the characters relate to each other. The parallel between the silent Teryncka and the Vixen is made obvious early on, but then its later significance barely registers. As a result the dramatic and emotional purpose of the human scenes becomes nebulous and they only seem in vague relation to the main thread of the opera, beyond some vague talk about young love and yearning for the past.

The human and animal world are also poorly distinguished. The animals are invariably dressed as humans (costumes by Dinah Collin), and usually it is very hard to tell which animal they are until the libretto tells us. The foxes at least are easy: they are dressed as orange clothed gypsies, with ginger hair and fox tails that they carry around in their hands. The tails are sometimes used to expressive effect, but too often seems to hamper a scene as the actors negotiate these clumsy implements. Why not just have them attached but with handles?

The chickens become tottering, wigged, corseted sex workers, though the cockerel is strangely drab and unexciting looking, especially as Still seems to suggest he is only a symbol of proud male fertility (he has a big red penis and balls permanently attached to his hands). There is simply almost nothing animal-like in the way these actors move, behave or look, except that occasionally they'll impulsively try and shag each other. The woodpecker is a bearded lady with a hammer, frogs are people with nets (and eyes on their hands a la Pan's Labyrinth), dragonflies are men in dresses, sparrows become people with blue sparkly tops, flowers in their hair and sticks, etc. etc. Although I think this lack of precision and contrast ruins certain symmetries and beauties in the opera, the idea of having the animals as humans could be be interesting if there was some sort of reasoning behind it, or new truth revealed by it. But there's no evidence to suggest that Still really means anything by this directorial decision - the animals really are meant to be thought of as animals, and nothing more or less.

This score is the most delicate, refined, crystalline and bejewelled of all of Janacek's operas, though of course it still has the urgency, rawness and immediacy that are the hallmarks of his music. Rawness is not crudity though, a distinction not reflected in the set design (Tom Pye). The main set item is a large tree made of pieces of square cut timber and perspex sheets with leaves and flowers, and in the background a steep cartoony path winds up a slope. Occasionally nice perspective effects are made possible by this, and the path also becomes the fox/badger hole a couple of times.  Unfortunately the extreme crudity of the finish doesn't at all square with the gossamer detail and broad sweeping grandeur of the most beautiful parts of the score, nor the snappy incisiveness of its more insouciant portions. The seasons change, but again that's where the idea stops.

Perhaps the biggest casualty is the last scene which is meant to be an awesome affirmation of the power and majesty of nature, but the Forester nostalgic reminiscences and then startled moment of soaring elation are here only communicated by the overwhelming beauty and surge of the music - on stage, singer Sergei Lieferkus just watches the animals playing around him, smiles, then lies on the floor.

As already mentioned, Janacek rarely attracts star singers (excepting perhaps his earliest masterpiece, Jenufa) because it's emphatically not about divadom or showy vocalising (the main character of Makropulos Case, notwithstanding). Lucy Crowe's role of Vixen Sharp Ears is by far the opera's biggest role, and she sings and acts it very nicely. There a touch of hoarseness in the climaxes which is not at all inappropriate for the role, and the rest is very nicely pointed. Sergei's Leiferkus' Forester didn't register as the major character he was meant to be - it's a fine voice and he can sing the notes, but more subtle acting and beautiful singing would have been welcome in this part. Emma Bell's Fox and Lucie Špičková's Dog were also good; Everyone else did the music justice, whilst never offering anything truly memorable. The chief glories were emanating from the pit.

Vladimir Jurowski lead the London Philharmonic orchestra in an incandescent performance, one of the finest pieces of Janacek conducting I've ever heard. During his life, Mackerras essentially owned this repertoire, but since his sad departure the field has been opened to conductors who really understand this music to pick up the mantle and continue bringing it to the public with the highest possible standards. The rhythmic and timbral precision made one hear this score afresh, and Jurowski really let it soar in the brief moments that Janacek allows it. Above all, the extraordinary luminosity, warmth and generosity of this music came across with huge force, and one hopes (nay, prays) that Jurowski will continue to conduct Janacek's scores in the future. Does his last season as musical director of Glyndebourne next year preclude his conducting in future seasons? Again, one hopes not.


  1. I've yet to hear Jurowski conduct Janacek but he strikes me as almost ideally suited to it. I'm glad it worked out.

  2. He and the orchestra were superb. Often fastier and pricklier than the classic Mackerras recording, but just as moving orchestrally. Of course Mackerras has the advantage of a wonderful cast.