Giorgio Koukl | 5 AUG 2020
Born in a small village in northern part of Moravia called Hukvaldy, Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) grew up as the twelfth child out of fourteen – definitely not a small family. Despite the poverty of his parents he enjoyed a quite solid musical education, first in a monastery school, than in Brno, Prague and Germany.
Janáček’s musical career began in a traditional way of that time: first as an organ player and choir master, later on as teacher and composer. He had a very peculiar way of conceiving music, a style born out of nowhere with no apparent predecessors and no known followers.
Based mainly on folk music of his native region, it proceeds within precise patterns where the strings create a solid base only to be constantly interrupted and disturbed by infinite and repetitive cascades of wind instruments. Basically, this way of conceiving music never changed during his whole life – a reason he was rejected as a “primitive” and a “not serious enough” musician by the elite cultural world of the European capitals.
Janáček had the same feeling towards the established composers, risking even to be thrown out of Prague’s music school because of his open criticism toward the music of his own school director. As far as is known, he established a certain friendship with Antonín Dvořák only.
He was in perennial crisis even with his family life. Janáček married twice but both marriages lasted a few years only. His two children died very early, adding even more bitterness.
Luckily, a miracle occurred: Janáček’s opera Jenufa was produced by the most prestigious National Theatre Prague with overwhelming success. At the same time, he fell in love with a thirty-nine-years younger married woman by the name of Kamilla Stösslovà. His life changed dramatically.
In his sixtieth year, Janáček began to experience an “Indian summer,” composing one masterpiece after another. The Sinfonietta was born, a grandiose homage to his city of Brno, full of magnificent brass fanfares, a good occasion to us to enjoy the incredible sound of London Symphony Orchestra brass section. Equally, Příhody Lišky Bystroušky (“The Cunning Little Vixen”), a short opera based on a character of the comic strip Liška Bystrouška (“Vixen Sharp-Ears”) by Rudolf Těsnohlídek, published in Lidové noviny, a local newspaper, with illustrations by Stanislav Lolek.
Once again, as he has done with his youth opera, Šárka, Janáček asked for permission to use this material but ended up writing the whole libretto himself.
The Cunning Little Vixen is a charming story of forest, animals and humans where animals seems to communicate and understand freely while the humans never understand either the forest nor the animals. Generally speaking the humans, represented by the classical village trio of priest, teacher and forest keeper, are the clumsy group, often drunken and dwelling in old love reminiscences while the animals, especially the fox, are the real heroes, acting like humans and giving us a myriad of hilarious moments.
This opera must be a real nightmare to any producer with its more than 18 characters, some of them sung by children, with two choirs and a huge orchestra totaling more than 190 interpreters. Let’s add to this the necessity of singing the original Czech version (well, it’s not even Czech but a local lachian dialect), and last but not least Janáček’s writing with no pity for the poor wind instruments. Conductors of the past even transcribed the whole opera in order to get it playable.
Now let us imagine the necessity to record this as a live semi-staged performance as the LSO live series does. This explains the word “daring” in my headline.
Sir Simon Rattle does a a great job, even if for me the reference recording still remains the rendering of Vàclav Neuman on the old Supraphon disc from 1954, despite its terribly old sonic and the scarce choice of voices Czechoslovakia had in that era.
I personally had occasion to follow many other versions as a young boy, when my father played the clarinet in National Theatre orchestra. He practiced often at home, the melodies of The Cunning Little Vixen entered very soon into my head. Sir Simon played celesta as a young student in this opera, which I hadn’t, but we both have a special feeling for this masterpiece.
Lucy Crowe, in the title role of the Vixen, has a perfectly controlled voice, capable of expressing every subtle sentiment necessary. She reminds me a little about Cecilia Bartoli, being able to modulate her voice from the most tiny, childish whisper to the greatest Wagner-style operatic singing.
Gerald Finley, with his precedent experience in this opera dating back to 2014, is a lucky choice to portray the Forester. His warm and pleasant voice is able to reach great heights of musical quality expressing the intrinsic poetry of Janáček’s intentions.
Sophia Burgos, in her double role as Fox and Hen, is a spectacular voice, fresh, young and with the greatest gift a singer can have; a strong sense for theater. Try to listen to her rendering of Sequenza III of Luciano Berio!
The London Symphony Orchestra is world-class per se and their capacity to play any music is legendary. They also have the best possible sound technicians and recording equipment. This can be admired especially in the Sinfonietta with static positions of the orchestra musicians. It is less so in The Cunning Little Vixen where the singers jump, move and roll over the stage, a thing which must have been quite an obstacle for a clean recording.
For a music lover this album is an easy recommendation but not necessarily for the Czech speaking public as the pronunciation ranges from bad to terrible – most of the time simply not understandable. The choice of voices is probably the right one for such an atypical opera, where no great operatic voices are needed. The tempi are fresh, the choice of dynamics excellent, no need to sit there with a score in hand to discover all incidents, probably unavoidable on a live performance without possibility to correct. The album’s booklet is extremely well written.
The Little Cunning Vixen remains a small marvel, maybe more similar to L’heure espagnol of Maurice Ravel than to any other contemporary opera. It is a typical product of its time, where it was possible to kill the main hero and even use its fur for a wedding gift without anybody noticing or screaming. The grace of Janáček’s way of “easy writing,” with a lot of humanity and great empathy, made this achievement possible. It is a comedy, but at the same time a profound human history, even if staging mainly animal characters. The duality of human and animal world never disturbs and give its way to a first-class interaction between theatre and music. ■