This coming Tuesday Opus Arte will release of video of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera production of Leoš Janáček’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen, recorded during performance at the Glyndebourne Opera House in June of 2012. I shall dispense with providing the original title of the opera in Czech, but the singing is in Czech with English subtitles available. For those wishing to get the jump on the release date, Amazon.com is currently taking pre-orders for both the DVD and Blu-ray versions.
This opera emerged from a comic strip in the newspaper Lidové noviny created by Rudolf Těsnohlídek and Stanislav Lolek based on a rural tale about a gamekeeper who tries (unsuccessfully and with some comic consequences) to domesticate a vixen. Janáček wrote his own libretto based on this comic strip creating a wide variety of singing roles for both human and animal characters and creating any number of situations in both worlds for a healthy share of low comedy. However, the result was less of a “comic opera” in the traditional sense of the phrase and more a meditation on the tenuous relationship between man and the rest of the natural world. The opera has neither heroes nor villains, but it is rich in situations that offer profound insights into the cycles of life regarded from a somewhat cosmic point of view.
The Glyndebourne production was staged by Molly Still. Because much of the natural world is represented by music without singing, Still engaged the services of choreographer Maxine Doyle and made the decision to double-cast the leading roles, allowing those characters to be represented by either a vocalist or a dancer as was appropriate to the progress of the narrative. (Those who know a thing or two about the history of the American musical comedy know that the same device was used in Oklahoma!) Since Janáček’s libretto unfolded the narrative as a series of disjoint episodes, this double-casting technique easily accommodated both narrative and musical needs.
The leading roles in this performance are sung by Lucy Crowe as the vixen (whose name is Sharp Ears), Sergei Leiferkus as the forester who tries to domesticate her, and Emma Bell as the fox that Sharp Ears meets after escaping back to her forest, marries (at a ceremony conducted by a grasshopper), and bears more children than she can count (only eight of which we see on stage). It is also important to observe that costume designer Dinah Collin chose to capture animals by a combination of suggestion and connotation. Both vixen and fox are identified primarily by their tails (which is also how we in the audience learn of Sharp Ears’ ultimate fate); but the rest of the costume tends to portray them as Gypsies, which is to say characters not quite at home in their own land.
The instrumental side of the score is provided by the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, Music Director at Glyndebourne and Principal Conductor of the LPO. He conducts with a keen sense of how Janáček tends to direct the flow of his music through the modulation of energy levels. While Jurowski is Russian, he also seems to have informed himself of the extent to which Janáček evokes Czech folk idioms, allowing the score to establish its unique position between symphonic music and indigenous source material.
Most importantly, however, this is an opera that takes a fairy-tale-like narrative and serves it up as a visual and auditory feast; and this Glyndebourne production delivers exquisitely on both visual and auditory levels.