Leoš Janáček — THE CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN

Räv vid Revhusen - juli 2012.

It is star­tling to real­ize that Leoš Janáček’s enchant­ing yet pro­found opera, The Cun­ning Lit­tle Vixen, had its ori­gin in what was close to being a news­pa­per car­toon strip.

From April through June, 1920, Brno’s pop­u­lar lib­eral daily, Lidové noviny, pub­lished the illus­trated story of a clever vixen con­stantly out­wit­ting a forester. The 200 or so sketches had been drawn by the painter Stanislav Lolek (1873 – 1936) who had been appren­ticed as a forester before turn­ing to art. One of the paper’s edi­tors saw the sketches and assigned Rudolf Těs­nohlídek (1882 – 1928), the Lidové noviny’s law reporter, to come up with some text to accom­pany the illustrations.

The printer mis­took Těsnohlídek’s orig­i­nal title, “Liška Bystronožka” (Vixen Fleet­foot) for “Liška Bystroužka” (Vixen Sharp-Ears”) — and so she has been ever since. Janáček’s title for his opera is Adven­tures of the Vixen Bystroušky (Příhody Lišky Bystroušky). When Max Brod trans­lated the opera into Ger­man, the title became Das schlaue Füch­slein or The Cun­ning Lit­tle Vixen—the title by which the opera is known almost every­where out­side of Janáček’s homeland.

The dif­fer­ence in the word­ing of the title is not mere pedantry. As Michael Ewans has pointed out in Janáček’s Tragic Operas, the Ger­man and Eng­lish trans­lated titles “are sadly symp­to­matic: the West has shown too lit­tle abil­ity to inter­pret an opera whose vision is as far from Dis­ney as it is from the clumsy sym­bol­ism of Max Brod’s ‘arrange­ment for the Ger­man stage.’ Janáček’s ani­mals are not patron­ized or sen­ti­men­tal­ized by the attri­bu­tion of human fea­tures: human singers and dancers, tak­ing on the masks and skins of insect, bird or ani­mal, find them­selves for the dura­tion of this opera mem­bers of an order nobler, by its deep humor and its sim­ple, amoral enjoy­ment of life, than that of human­ity. The par­tic­u­lar moments where ani­mals assume the man­ners of men sat­i­rize human rather than ani­mal behav­ior; no ani­mal is por­trayed iron­i­cally, except the dog and hens who have suc­cumbed self-righteously to exploita­tion by mankind.”

This unsen­ti­men­tal view of the opera is shared by Edward Berke­ley, direc­tor of Aspen Opera The­ater Cen­ter. “In our pro­duc­tion, the sense of char­ac­ter, in terms of ani­mals, is going to be strong, but it def­i­nitely is going to go away from ‘cute.’ The period will be the 1920’s or ’30s with a Euro­pean fla­vor. It will be call­ing back to a time of aware­ness of the earth and the val­ues of the earth, a kind of re-finding one­self in nature.”

Through­out all the adven­tures the Vixen has dur­ing the course of the opera, there is a strong under­ly­ing theme of the rela­tion­ship between humans and the world of nature. Janáček empha­sized this part of the work — as well as the cycli­cal nature of renewal found in life itself — by the changes he made in Těsnohlídek’s orig­i­nal version.

Těsnohlídek’s story was largely devoted to the numer­ous adven­tures of Vixen Sharp-Ears, cul­mi­nat­ing in her mar­riage to the Fox. Janáček, how­ever, used this end­ing to the orig­i­nal story as the finale to Act Two of his opera. For Act Three, the com­poser used a few inci­dents from ear­lier in Těsnohlídek’s story, pri­mar­ily the inci­dent with Harašta the poacher — but with a major dif­fer­ence. In Janáček’s ver­sion, the poacher kills the Vixen, which com­pletely changes the nature of the work. How­ever, the pro­fun­dity of Janáček’s ver­sion is sealed by not end­ing the opera with Sharp-Ear’s death (which would be merely sen­ti­men­tal), but by the last two scenes of the opera which are Janáček’s invention.

The almost painful nos­tal­gia of the scene at the Inn where the School­mas­ter real­izes his beloved Theresa has mar­ried another man, and the Forester announces the Vixen has left her bur­row and dis­ap­peared, gives way to the aston­ish­ing trans­for­ma­tion scene with which the opera ends.  The Forester enters the for­est with his gun, as he did at the begin­ning of the opera. But this time — because of his rela­tion­ship with the Vixen, and because he has been open to learn from her — he sees Nature in all its beauty, and it renews him. He val­ues not only the mush­room he picks, but every­thing he sees. Unlike the mem­o­ries he has of his wed­ding day in the open­ing scene (“I feel as tired as I did on my wed­ding night. The next day I was dead to the world” — an obvi­ous metaphor to his being dead to the world of nature in which he found him­self) this time — as he rev­els in the splen­dor of nature all around him — he remem­bers the pas­sion of the love they had felt and the all con­sum­ing kisses they had shared.  As in the open­ing scene, the Forester falls asleep, and this time meets the descen­dants of the Vixen and the Frog from Act One.

In an mar­velous touch, the huge dra­matic arch the Forester has trav­eled since we first met him is deftly con­veyed by Janáček’s last stage direc­tion in the piece, the last words in the score: “Absent­mind­edly, the Forester lets his gun slip to the ground.”  He no longer needs it. He is at peace with Nature.

When Max Brod wanted Janáček to write some final words for the Forester “in which he could sink into rumi­na­tion,” the com­poser adamantly refused. “In the final scene the Forester’s gun sim­ply slips from his hand,” he insisted. “Noth­ing more; let every­one work out for him­self what he will.”

Vixen is a life-giving piece,” Berke­ley explains. “That sense of renewal — that we don’t loose the past, but we grow by accept­ing it. By accept­ing the Vixen’s death, and then look­ing into the future, the shape of the opera says that death is a nat­ural part of things, and from that sense of renewal we can learn and grow.

The work is a para­ble about what we should appre­ci­ate and learn from nature and the nat­ural cycle — and about male/female rela­tion­ship in gen­eral.”  Berke­ley agrees with the critic who said the Vixen is the embod­i­ment of unre­strained fem­i­nin­ity. “The growth of the piece is toward her own dis­cov­ery of that — and the Forester dis­cov­er­ing that. The scene with the Fox, at the end of Act Two, is where it all comes out. That’s a glo­ri­ous moment!”

Aside from a few moments, such as the humor­ous polit­i­cal harangue the Vixen gives the Hens in Act One, there are com­par­a­tively few words in the opera’s libretto. It is the music, by far, through which Janáček sub­tly con­veys the shift­ing rela­tion­ships. “The musi­cal insight lav­ished on the depic­tion of each suc­ces­sive stage of [the Vixen’s] life is intended to have deep mean­ing for us,” writes Ewans. “Human beings, like vix­ens, are born, grow, marry and die; those seen in the opera live lives poor in com­par­i­son with Bystrouška’s — except for the Forester, whose road to wis­dom is care­fully charted, and on whose clos­ing vision Janáček lav­ished some of his most inspired music.… Janáček illu­mi­nates for us the cycles of life and nature; and at the same time he shows us arche­types of the moral­ity of the humans who can­not accept those cycles — and the road by which one human even­tu­ally can.”

The orches­tral inter­ludes and mimes/dances were inte­gral parts of Janáček’s vision of the story from the very begin­ning, and he resisted all well-meaning sug­ges­tions to add con­ven­tional arias so the ani­mals could “explain” things.

The Vixen is a for­est idyll; only a hint should sur­face of our cycle and that of ani­mal life,” he wrote to his pub­lisher. “That is enough — it is true that for most this sym­bol­ism is too lit­tle. The Vixen can only eat rab­bits, not romances and arias.”

I’m hop­ing the audi­ence will come away from the per­for­mances really lov­ing the music,” says Berke­ley. “That sounds like such a cliché, but for me the piece is such a rev­e­la­tion of Janáček’s incred­i­ble musi­cal style that is really a unique voice. It’s an impor­tant voice. It’s roman­tic, it’s very beau­ti­ful, and here it’s con­vey­ing a quite seri­ous vision of nature, and the impor­tance of nature in our lives.  As we destroy the envi­ron­ment, we should be learn­ing how to restore our­selves the way nature does, and renew our­selves, rather than destroy­ing each other and destroy­ing nature.”

 

Janáček and Animals

Janáček loved ani­mals and the fam­ily always had numer­ous pets: dogs, pigeons, a gold finch — and three hens.  Marie Ste­jskalová, the Janáček’s ser­vant for over 40 years, remem­bered, “Janáček talked to the hens as to chil­dren, they looked at him, answered some­thing and he under­stood. In the evening, when he sat down in the gar­den in his arm­chair to read the paper, he rapped on the table, like a school­mas­ter at school. The hens came run­ning at once, jumped up [onto the table] and kept him company.”

Dur­ing the sum­mer of 1922, while he was work­ing on The Cun­ning Lit­tle Vixen, Janáček and some friends went into the for­est near Huk­valdy to observe a fam­ily of foxes. The game­keeper, J. D. Sládek, later wrote, “We reached Babí hora [Old Woman Moun­tain], and indeed, as if to order, the vixen’s fam­ily emerged from the den and began to show off and frisk about. Janáček started twitch­ing with excite­ment until in the end he fright­ened the foxes away.

‘Why couldn’t you keep still, Dr. Janáček? You could have gone on looking?’

Janáček, com­pletely exhil­a­rated and happy, just brushed this aside. ‘I saw her! I saw her!’

 

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in the Aspen Opera The­ater pro­gram, 2005.

The photo at the top of the arti­cle is by Jonn Leffmann.

The draw­ings in the arti­cle are Stanislav Lolek’s of “Vixen Fleetfoot.”