VixenLeoš Janáček - The Cunning Little Vixen

Glyndebourne 2012 | Vladimir Jurowski, Melly Still, Sergei Leiferkus, Lucy Crowe, Emma Bell, Mischa Schelomianski, William Dazeley, Jean Rigby, Adrian Thompson, Colin Judson, Sarah Pring | Opus Arte

With its charming depiction of life and nature, with the animals of the forest featuring throughout as characters, it’s common to see Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen staged like a pantomime and aimed at a younger audience, even though some of the behaviour of the creatures is indeed quite frankly “animalistic”. The opera is not of course essentially about animals but about life and, indeed, the facts of life, so it’s interesting to see the opera treated with a more mature outlook for the 2012 production at Glyndebourne. It may perhaps lose a little bit of its innocent charm in the process, but there’s more than enough gained from the usual fine attention that Glyndebourne give to the production - and the opera - as a complete package.

Rather than having children and older performers dressed in the usual colourful animal suits, the creatures of the forest are still characterised as animals here, but without the full make-up. Instead they carry only an object by which they can be identified, the idea seeming to be to remind us that their animal behaviour isn’t all that different from humans. A man holds an udder in his hand for the forester to milk, the dog, Lapák, holds a snake-like tail an shakes it about, the cockerel waves his dangly bits proudly and menacingly for the lady hens who are all in frilly lace underwear. As for the vixen, she’s dressed like a gypsy girl, in a woolly jumper with a hooped pattern, flowing gypsy skirt, trilby hat and scarf, with a shaggy mane of red hair, carrying a bushy tail and a hunter’s knife instead of sharp teeth. The characterisation is a bit of a half-way house and doesn’t always allow the anthromorphic elements to come fully to life, but combined with other elements of the stage setting, it does work to express the themes on a literal level as well figuratively.

The set itself places man both within this natural world and at the same time outside it, showing nature to be bold and colourful, while the indoors scenes - kept in the Janacek’s period and Moravian setting - are drab by comparison. Two features however dominate Tom Pye’s set designs that serve to bring those two different worlds together. One is a large winding path rising vertically at the back of the stage which at one time can be a path and at other times a burrow. It seems a little over-elaborate, requiring the use of stand-ins on harnesses, but it works. The other more significant feature however is a huge tree made up of a swirl of planks that alone functions as the strongest image and is at the centre of the stage for most of the production. It’s the one enduring constant that stands there throughout the seasons and the passing of generations, serving as a home for the birds, as a place to protect Forester from the sun while he sleeps, it’s where Sharp Ears the vixen is tied-up on the farm and it’s her shelter and home for her family later, made over into a den after the old badger has been driven out. Eventually, towards the end, even little saplings appear around the tree as well.

The strongest element of the production however, and the one that most eloquently describes the natural world it depicts, is undoubtedly Janáček’s music itself, which is wonderfully played by the London Philharmonic under Vladimir Jurowski. This gorgeous music - for me the most evocative and beautiful of all Janáček’s work - is almost achingly beautiful in its apparently simple rhythms. Not only does it flow however to Janáček’s familiar speech patterns and folk-like textures, but it’s also almost onomatopoeic in its capturing of the sounds, the rhythm and the flow of life, the passing of time and the eternal timelessness of nature. In its melodies also however it seems to mingle joy and sadness, beauty and cruelty, the spontaneity of living and the wisdom of ages. It’s undoubtedly this element that everything else must respond to in a production of The Cunning Little Vixen and, with only a few minor concerns, Melly Still’s direction - and particularly the beautiful choreography of the dancers - seems to respond to the music and its meaning as does the exceptionally fine performance of the orchestra conducted by Jurowski.

If there’s any one concern it’s a minor one about the pacing. Not the tempo. The rhythm and flow feel marvellous, but everything seems to fly past so quickly as if in a haste to get to the next scene, and it’s all over before you knew it. A bit like life I suppose - which may have been the intention. It’s true that The Cunning Little Vixen is not a long work and Janáček deliberately leaves no time for sentimentality about the natural order of things passing on and making way for renewal, but at the same time there seems to be little time in this production for you to connect with some of the most beautiful key moments and let them sink in. There may even be a few trims to the score to indeed prevent the audience from dwelling too long on events that ultimately are just another stage in the greater scheme of things, to be played out continually in the cycle of life.

This is particularly evident in the singing, which is fine throughout but tends to keep the singers - and consequently the audience - a little step removed from the characters, preventing them from really springing into life. Lucy Crowe however handles the complex Czech language requirements with its flow of consonants well, maintaining the necessary rhythm while performing fox-like moves very impressively. Emma Bell too sang beautifully and fitted well into the role of Golden Mane. There is perhaps rather more care given to the human figures, the Forester (Sergei Leiferkus) and his colleagues, and their disillusionment or sense of detachment with the true nature of the world - too caught up in themselves to see their part in the greater scheme of things. If the intention is to restore the human element back into a work where there can be too much emphasis placed on the cute antics of the animals, Melly Still’s production certainly manages that, and in conjunction with the overall tone of the production it works well, revealing all the magnificent beauty of one of the finest works in all opera, even if it loses just a little bit of its innocent charm in the process.

The production comes across reasonably well on the Blu-ray release. Some of the darker scenes have some post-production brightening applied, which creates a ringing halo around figures, but this isn’t evident in more than one or two scenes. Otherwise, the full colourful quality of the work is evident. The audio tracks are the usual PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. Extras include a Cast Gallery and a 22-minute Making Of featurette, with interviews covering the concept, the music and the production design with some rehearsal footage. The BD is all-region, BD25 (for a 97 minute opera), with subtitles in English, French, German and Korean.