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.
Bruckner, Bruckner, wherever one goes; From Salzburg to London, he is with us, he is with us indeed, and will be next week too. (I shall even be given the Third Symphony another try, on my birthday: the things I do for Daniel Barenboim ) Still, at least it seems to mean that fewer unnecessary Mahler-as-showpiece performances are being foisted upon us. Moreover, in this case, it was good, indeed great Bruckner, rather than one of the interminable number of ‘versions’ of interminable earlier works.
Thomas Larcher’s Second Symphony (written 2015-16) here received its United Kingdom premiere, its first performance having been given by the Vienna Philharmonic and Semyon Bychkov in June this year. A commission from the Austrian National Bank for its bicentenary, it is nevertheless not a celebratory work, instead commemorating those refugees who have met their deaths in the Mediterranean Sea, ‘expressing grief over those who have died and outrage at the misanthropy at home in Austria and elsewhere’.
One of the initiatives for the community at the Lucerne Festival is the ‘40 min’ series. A free concert given before the evening’s main event that ranges from chamber music to orchestral rehearsals.
The mysteries and myths surrounding Mozart’s Requiem Mass - left unfinished at his death and completed by his pupil, Franz Xaver Süssmayr - abide, reinvigorated and prolonged by Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus as directed on film by Miloš Forman. The origins of the work’s commission and composition remain unknown but in our collective cultural and musical consciousness the Requiem has come to assume an autobiographical role: as if Mozart was composing a mass for his own presaged death.
I saw two operas consecutively at Oper Koln. First, the utterly bewildering Lucia di Lammermoor; then Thilo Reinhardt’s thrilling Tosca. His staging was pure operatic joy with some Hitchcockian provocations.
Bernard Haitink’s monumental Bruckner and Mahler performances with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO) got me hooked on classical music. His legendary performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in C-minor, where in the Finale loosened plaster fell from the Concertgebouw ceiling, is still recounted in Amsterdam.
Karita Mattila was born to sing Emilia Marty, the diva around whom revolves Leoš Janáček's The Makropulos Affair (Věc Makropulos). At Prom 45, she shone all the more because she was conducted by Jirí Belohlávek and performed alongside a superb cast from the National Theatre, Prague, probably the finest and most idiomatic exponents of this repertoire.
‘Two outrageous operas in one crazy evening,’ reads the bill. Hyperbole? Certainly not when the operas are two of Jacques Offenbach’s more off-the-wall bouffoneries and when the company is Opera della Luna whose artistic director, Jeff Clarke, is blessed with the comic imagination and theatrical nous to turn even the most vacuous trivia into a sharp and sassy riotous romp.
This performance of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Glyndebourne was so good that it was the highlight of the whole season, making the term ‘revival’ utterly irrelevant. Jakub Hrůša is always stimulating, but on this occasion, his conducting was so inspired that I found myself closing my eyes in order to concentrate on what he revealed in Britten's quirky but brilliant score. Eyes closed in this famous production by Peter Hall, first seen in 1981?
A staged piano recital and an opera as a concert. Pianist András Schiff accompanied the Salzburg Marionette Theater at the Mozarteum Grosser Saal and Anna Netrebko sang Manon Lescaut at the Grosses Festspielhaus.
On August 4, 2016, soprano Leah Crocetto and accompanist Tamara Sanikidze gave a recital at the Scottish Rite Center in Santa Fe New Mexico. A winner of the Metropolitan Opera Auditions and the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Contest, this year Crocetto was singing Donna Anna in Santa Fe Opera’s excellent Don Giovanni.
On July 31, 2016, against the ethereal beauty of the main hall in the Scottish Rite Center, soprano Angela Meade and pianist Joe Illick gave a recital offering both opera and art songs ranging in origin from early nineteenth century Europe to mid twentieth century America. Many in the audience probably remembered Meade’s recent excellent portrayal of Norma at Los Angeles Opera.
When more is definitely more, and less would indeed be less. Two of the biggest names in Italian theater art collide in an eponymous theater.
It was the fifth Proms Chamber Music concert at Cadogan Hall this season, and we were celebrating Shakespeare’s 400th. And, given the extent and range of the composers and artists, and the diversity and profundity of the musical achievement inspired by the Bard, we could probably keep celebrating in this fashion ad infinitum.
Each August the bleak and leaky, 12,000 seat Arena Adriatica (home of the famed Pesaro basketball team) magically transforms itself into an improvised opera house that boasts the ultimate in opera chic — exemplary Rossini production standards for its now twelve hundred seats.
This highly enjoyable Prom, part of 2016’s ‘Proms at ’ mini-series, took as its guiding concept the reopening of London’s theatres following the Restoration, focusing in particular upon musical and dramatic responses to Shakespeare. Purcell, rightly, loomed large, with John Blow and Matthew Locke joining him. Receiving their Proms premieres were the excerpts from Timon of Athens and those from Locke’s The Tempest.
With all the bombast of the presidential campaigns rattling in our heads, with invectives being exchanged and measured discussion all but absent, how utterly lovely to retreat and relax into the harmonious soundscape and well-reasoned debate posed in Strauss’ Capriccio, on magnificent display at Santa Fe Opera.
When we entered the Crosby Theatre for Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette the stage was surprisingly dominated by a somber, semi-circular black mausoleum, many chambers inscribed with scrambled names of US Civil War era dead.
Molten passions were seething just below the icy Nordic exterior of Santa Fe Opera’s wholly masterful production of Barber’s Vanessa.
Farce is probably the most difficult of dramatic comedy sub-genres to put across. A farce got up in the stately robes of opera sets its presenters an even higher bar. Presenting an operatic farce on a notoriously chilly and cavernous auditorium is to risk catastrophe.
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