Cunning Little Vixen.

I watched two different versions of Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen this week — the 2012 Glyndebourne production and Nagano and Dunbar’s animated (and English-translated) adaptation. Both were quite good. Vixen is a wonderful comic opera in the fabliaux tradition. It tells a deceptively simple story about the antagonistic relationship between a fox and forester — but (as fabliaux stories generally do) the story and its animal characters is really an allegorical meditation on life and death. It treats the subject of mortality and violence with comic seriousness. But it also celebrates the vitality of the animal world with the bawdy and scatological humour also typical of the fabliaux. At its core it’s an opera filled with vitality and hope — and it’s really not difficult to see why Janáček asked for parts of it to be played at his own funeral.

I was struck by the range of performance possibilities this opera lends. The Nagano and Dunbar film seems to opt for a more ‘family friendly’ rendition of the opera. This tone is particularly noticeable in the farmyard scenes in act 1 where Sharp-ears the Vixen tries to persuade the hens to turn against the rooster (with a frankly glorious feminist oratory against the rooster’s exploitative and selfish behaviours); the hens are too bird-brained to hear, though, and Vixen ends up slaughtering them all. The Glyndebourne production costumed the hens in burlesque-style feathers and tights and staged the subsequent slaughter as a violent and (very) bloody fray. The Dunbar and Nagano film tones down the sex and violence (the hens are presented more as exploited factory workers and there is almost no blood when Sharp-ears kills the hens. The Nagano and Dunbar film manages to preserve a lot of the carnavalesque energy of the opera while being suitable for a somewhat younger audience — which seems advantages as the opera is also short as operas go (about an hour and a half) and vibrant. I enjoyed this film a lot. The Glyndebourne production is absolutely stunning though (I’m already rewatching it).

Musically the opera is both interesting and enjoyable (that is, I loved the music, but I’m also enjoying going back and listening to it while reading about the different motifs and styles). It also incorporates a lot of dance which captures the spirit and vitality of the animal world almost better than the libretto can. A really really wonderful piece altogether.

9 April 2015


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