27 Jun 2014
Leoš Janáček : The Cunning Little Vixen, Garsington Opera at Wormsley
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.
On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.
Here is one of the next new great conductors. That’s a bold statement, but even the L.A. Times agrees: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s appointment “is the biggest news in the conducting world.” But Ms. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will be getting a lot of weight on her shoulders.
Manitoba Opera chose to open its 44th season by going for the belly laughs — literally — as it notably presented its inaugural production of Verdi’s Falstaff.
Macabre and moonstruck, Schubert as Goth, with Stuart Jackson, Marcus Farnsworth and James Baillieu at the Wigmore Hall. An exceptionally well-planned programme devised with erudition and wit, executed to equally high standards.
On November 20, 2016, Arizona Opera completed its run of Antonín Dvořák’s fairy Tale opera, Rusalka. Loosely based on Hand Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Joshua Borths staged it with common objects such as dining room chairs that could be found in the home of a child watching the story unfold.
Consistently overshadowed by the neighboring Bayreuth, the far less stuffy Oper Leipzig (Wagner’s birthplace) programmed after forty years their first complete Ring Cycle.
You didn’t have to know the Bugs Bunny oeuvre to appreciate Opera San Jose’s enchanting Il barbiere di Sivigila, but it sure enhanced your experience if you did.
If there was ever any doubt that Puccini’s Manon is on a road to nowhere, then the closing image of Jonathan Kent’s 2014 production of Manon Lescaut (revived here for the first time, by Paul Higgins) leaves no uncertainty.
Many opera singers are careful to maintain an air of political neutrality. Not so mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who is outspoken about causes she holds dear. Her latest project, a very personal response to the 2015 terror attacks in Paris, puts her audience through the emotional wringer, but also showers them with musical rewards.
I wonder if Karl Amadeus Hartmann saw something of himself in the young Simplicius Simplicissimus, the eponymous protagonist of his three-scene chamber opera of 1936. Simplicius is in a sort of ‘Holy Fool’ who manages to survive the violence and civil strife of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), largely through dumb chance, and whose truthful pronouncements fall upon the ears of the deluded and oppressive.
For its second opera of the 2016-17 season Lyric Opera of Chicago has staged Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in a production seen at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the Grand Théâtre de Genève.
Akhnaten is the third in composer Philip Glass’s trilogy of operas about people who have made important contributions to society: Albert Einstein in science, Mahatma Gandhi in politics, and Akhnaten in religion. Glass’s three operas are: Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten.
Shakespeare re-imagined for the very Late Baroque, with Bampton Classical Opera at St John's Smith Square. "Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare....the God of Our Idolatory". So wrote David Garrick in his Ode to Shakespeare (1759) through which the actor and showman marketed Shakespeare to new audiences, fanning the flames of "Bardolatory". All Europe was soon caught up in the frenzy.
David Little composed his one-man opera, Soldier Songs, ten years ago and the International Festival of Arts & Ideas of New Haven, Connecticut, premiered it in 2011. At San Diego Opera, the fifty-five minute musical presentation and the “Talk Back” that followed it were part of the Shiley dētour Series which is held in the company’s smaller venue, the historic Balboa Theatre.
On Saturday evening November 12, 2016, Pacific Opera Project presented Gioachino Rossini’s comic opera The Barber of Seville in an updated version that placed the action in Hollywood. It was sung in the original Italian but the translation seen as supertitles was specially written to match the characters’ Hollywood identities.
A Butterfly for the ages in a Butterfly marred by casting ineptness and lugubrious conducting.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
In a letter to Kamila Stösslová dated the 10th of February that year he writes wistfully “I have begun writing The Cunning Little Vixen. A merry thing with a sad end: I am taking up a place at that sad end myself and I so belong there”.
It is tempting to see a connection between the opera’s composition and the purchase of his country home in Hukvaldy “beyond the stream, great forests” which he began to regard as something of a retirement home. The opera is one of those works, earthy, especially in this translation, and yet all the more affecting for containing a profound truth. Humans and animals alike inhabit the forest, we share the same emotions, we live briefly, all too soon we die but the forest lives on. As in that wonderful epilogue to Das Lied von der Erde, “The beloved earth everywhere blossoms and greens in springtime anew. Everywhere and forever the distances brighten blue”. The Forester’s ecstatic farewell at the opera’s close touches similar emotions, albeit refracted through Janáček’s unique prism.
Of course Cunning Little Vixen can also be taken as entertainment pure and simple with its hilarious scenes in the local pub with the repressed minister, the even more repressed schoolmaster and the almost equally repressed Forester getting as we would say in Scotland “fou and unca happy” (ie ‘smashed), then at the Forester’s hut with the hens, the cock - here summarily ‘bobbited’ on stage by the Vixen - and the dog Lapak, and last but not least the rapturous (and extremely funny) courtship and mating of Vixen Long Ears with the Fox and other scenes in the forest. For that reason it is ideal summer opera - Glyndebourne did it recently - although, given the overt but scarcely suppressed sexual longing of nearly all the characters, it is a moot point - unlike, say, Hansel & Gretel- whether it would ever be suitable for children. However, it is certainly a ‘feel-good’ opera - at least until the Vixen is shot by the macho poacher Harasta who, as we hear from subsequent conversation in the pub, will shortly marry the local object of desire, Terynka, who will be wearing a new fox fur muff for the occasion. At that point the plot darkens.
Given Janáček’s own unconsummated passion over many years for Kamila Stösslová, it is hard not to see the main character’s emotions as at least partly autobiographical. Thankfully Janáček’s relationship with Kamila seems to have remained entirely proper. Had it been otherwise we should probably never have had that magnificent flow of late masterpieces. Ironically I knew an old Czech gentleman in Malta called Jaroslav who had fallen in love with a married woman across a crowded theatre in Prague in the 1920’s and whose unrequited passion for her lasted till his death some 50 years later. He produced an epic love poem in her honour running to over 100 pages which he would read to his friends with tears streaming down his face.
This, the final opera in Garsington’s current season of three operas, is an undoubted delight and there are no obvious weak links in the substantial cast, Claire Booth consistently excellent as the Vixen and the stentorian Grant Doyle impressive as the Forester. The Cunning Little Vixen has a large cast of other animals - the frog, the grasshopper, the badger, the hens (excellent in their movements) as well as those already mentioned and assorted humans of whom both Timothy Robinson’s sad schoolmaster and Henry Waddington’s priest both deserve special mention. So too does Victoria Simmonds characterful fox.
That said, there have to be a number of minor reservations about the production itself. With its rural setting Garsington should be an ideal location for Cunning Little Vixen (the sliding doors behind the stage open onto woods beyond, surely a perfect backdrop for the forest scenes but, unlike Vert-Vert, this was not used).The interior scenes in the inn had a set that looked uncomfortably like Laura Ashley wallpaper from the 1960’s - one could see what the designer had in mind since this had to double as the forest glade when the set worked (on several occasions it jammed and the stage staff had difficulty moving it). Nor were the Vixen’s nonchalant movements entirely convincingly foxy (I speak from experience as we have a vixen which regularly uses our back garden and has even joined us for lunch on sunny days, sitting on the roof of our garden shed and eyeing us up curiously as we eat; she either moves very cautiously or trots along quite rapidly).
For the most part Garry Walker and the orchestra had the score’s measure, refusing to jolly it along too quickly and allowing its moments of wonder and ‘wood magic’ to emerge naturally; however, there were some occasions where the music cried out for greater weight and intensity, notably that glorious pantheistic epilogue where the Forester, alone in the forest, reflects on his lost youth and his loveless marriage and - when he sees a fox cub resembling the young vixen - wonders if he should take it home with him.
A postscript. Given the awful story of the tenor at the Met who took a heart attack some years ago during a performance of The Makropoulos Case and fell from a ladder, it was interesting to see boys/cubs clambering up and down ladders without helmets, body harnesses and carabiners. Fortunately the ubiquitous Health & Safety’s writ does not seem to have reached Garsington. After all, boys will be boys and we all survived falling out of the odd tree. Long may it continue. Viva la liberta!
The Cunning Little Vixen
Music Leos Janáček
Libretto Leos Janáček based on the novel Liska Bystrouska by Rudolf Tesnohlidek,
Forester:: Grant Doyle, Forester’s wife : Lucy Schaufer, Schoolmaster \: Timothy Robinson, Priest :Henry Waddington, Harašta : Joshua Bloom, Pásek (innkeeper) : Aaron Cawley, Pásek’s wife : Helen Anne Gregory, Pepík : William Gardner, Frantík : Theo Lally, Young Vixen Bystrouška : Alexandra Persinaru, Vixen Bystrouška : Claire Booth, Fox : Victoria Simmonds, Cricket: Isaac Flanagan, Grasshopper : Sophie Thomson, Frog : Gabriel Kuti, Mosquito : Richard Dowling, Lapák a dog: Anna Harvey
Cock : Alice Rose Privett, Chocholka a hen : Katherine Crompton, Badger :Bragi Jonnson, Woodpecker : Marta Fontanals-Simmons, Owl : Grace Durham, Jay : Elizabeth Karani, Vixen dancer :Chiara Vinci, Forester dancer :Jamie Higgins,
Conductor :Garry Walker, Director : Daniel Slater, Designer : Robert Innes Hopkins,
Lighting Designer : Tim Mascall, Choreographer: Maxine Braham, Assistant conductor Holly Mathieson, Garsington Opera Orchestra