Opera Scotland

Cunning Little Vixen Příhody Lišky Bystroušky

Music
Leoš Janáček (born Hukvaldy, 3 July 1854; died Ostrava, 12 August 1928)

Text
The composer.

Source
Serialised novel The Vixen Sharp-ears – Liška Bystrouška (1920), by Rudolf Těsnohlídek

Premières
First performance: Brno (National Theatre), 6 November 1924.
First UK production: London (Sadler’s Wells Theatre), 22 March 1961.
First performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (King’s Theatre), 2 September 1970.
Scottish Opera première: Edinburgh (King’s Theatre), 27 August 1980.

Background
Janáček earned a living as a music teacher for many years before his compositions were recognised, and he only achieved success at a late stage in his career. The seventh of his nine operas, The Vixen uses a plot derived from a newspaper serialisation illustrated with cartoons. It is a deceptively hard-edged story contrasting the natural world, where life is matter-of-fact and most creatures are happy, with the humans who tend to be rather dissatisfied with life. Some productions have introduced a pseudo-Disneyfied sentimentality, and fail miserably as a result. Child performers (caterpillars and hedgehogs) need to be handled with great care and tact. One feature is the doubling of parts, so that a singer plays one human and one animal character (e.g. the priest and the badger). However the success of this can be limited, perhaps because such doublings are sometimes not obvious under all the make-up, and so lose their point.

Main Characters
Vixen (soprano)
Fox (soprano or tenor)
Badger (bass)
Cockerel (soprano or tenor)
Dog (mezzo-soprano or bass)
Forester (baritone)
Schoolteacher (tenor)
Priest (bass)
Poacher (baritone)

Plot Summary
The plot shows the natural cycle of nature, with a far more lyrical style of pastoral music than in Janáček’s other operas. A forester captures an orphaned fox cub who is taken home as a pet for his children. As this cub grows she becomes wild and cunning, rejects the advances of the dog, slaughters the chickens and escapes back to the wild (this is far funnier than it sounds). The forester and his friends spend their leisure in the inn getting drunk and mawkish. Meanwhile the vixen meets and, after a rapid courtship, marries a dog-fox. Numerous progeny result. The seasons change, life moves on. In protecting her young, the vixen is eventually shot by a poacher, who wants to make a fur muff for his girl. The forester meets another fox cub and realises it is a descendant of his vixen. Life goes on.

RECORDINGS

DECCA (2 CDs) Sung in Czech Recorded 1981

Conductor: Charles Mackerras
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Lucia Popp (Vixen), Eva Randová (Fox.), Dalibor Jedlička (Forester).

This recording became an instant classic when it was first issued. The cast of native Czech or Slovak soloists is entirely natural, and includes some experienced veterans, including Beno Blachut as the Innkeeper. Lucia Popp is wonderfully lively as the Vixen, and the rest of the cast, including Vladimir Krejčík as the Schoolmaster, Richard Novák doubling Priest and Badger, and Václav Zitek as the Poacher, are all hard to beat. The Vienna Philharmonic musicians were taught by Mackerras to play Janáček stylishly, and the discs also contain the orchestral suite arranged by Václav Talich as an appropriate filler.

CHANDOS 3101 (2 mid-price CDs) Sung in English Recorded 1990

Conductor: Simon Rattle                                                                                           Orchestra of Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.                                                             Lillian Watson (Vixen), Diana Montague (Fox), Thomas Allen (Forester)

Some people may want a performance in English translation rather than the Czech original. They need look no further, but that is far from the only reason to acquire this recording. This was the first time the Vixen had been staged at Covent Garden, and Bill Bryden’s production was a great success. Simon Rattle and Thomas Allen had collaborated in a staging at Glyndebourne earlier in their careers, and their affection for the opera comes over strongly. The other roles are put over with plenty of character, with Lillian Watson on winning form in the title role. In Britain it has been more common to have the Fox sung by a tenor, which may be acceptable in the theatre, but musically it is more successful to use the higher voice the composer preferred – Diana Montague is very effective in the role. The rest of the cast is excellent, which is not surprising when the list includes Gillian Knight, Robert Tear, Gwynne Howell and John Dobson, among others. The English language diction is excellent.

SUPRAPHON 3071-2 612 (2 mid-price CDs) Sung in Czech Recorded 1970

Conductor: Bohumil Gregor
Orchestra of National Theatre Prague
Helena Tattermuschová (Vixen), Eva Zikmundová (Fox), Zdeněk Kroupa (Forester).

This recording was for many years the only one available. It also serves as a reminder for anyone who saw most of this cast at the 1970 Edinburgh Festival, when the opera was a far greater rarity than it is now. On sound only we are spared the sentimentality of the stage production. Tattermuschová is very characterful as the Vixen, and Zikmundová backs her up well. Dalibor Jedlička, the Forester in the later Mackerras set, here doubles as Priest and Badger. Jaroslava Procházková – a real veteran, whose career in Prague went back to the 1930s, sings the Forester’s Wife and Owl. Inevitably the recording quality is not as good as on the more recent sets, but this performance is still very enjoyable.

The Cast

Badger
 
Cock
 
Forester
 
Forester's Wife
 
Fox
 
Frantík
 a boy, Pepík's friend
Harašta
 a poacher
Hen
 
Jay
 
Lapák
 a dog
Mosquito
 
Owl
 
Parson
 
Pásek
 innkeeper
Pasková
 innkeeper's wife
Pepík
 a boy, the forester's son
Schoolmaster
 
Vixen
 
Woodpecker
 

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