The Cunning Little Vixen
Leoš Janácek’s absurdist opera, first performed in Brno on 6 November 1924, is a marvellous expression of Modernism. We get Freud, Darwin, Magritte and Jarry as oblique cultural references but most of all we get a Czech, or rather Moravian, sensibility which is both cartoonish and psychologically astute. In this production by the brilliant Melly Still, it is also intensely feminist.
The story is delightfully nonsensical because the animals are imbued with human characteristics and the humans behave like brutes. A forester takes home a vixen as a pet. The fox imagines herself as a young woman who is the beloved of the forester. She is the spirit of independence and rebellion and she starts a feminist revolution against the bossy cock who dominates his harem of hens. The vixen escapes to the forest where there is a frantic activity of chase and love-confusion between humans and animals. Suggestions of bestiality remind us of the Modernism inherent in the cartoon aspect of this opera. At moments, this is not far from the craziness of the US television’s Family Guy.
The fierce vixen with human emotions, meets a male fox who has to declare love of her soul before conquering her body. Even though the vixen is shot her progeny live on. Her daughter displays much of the mother’s anarchic nature. The main impulse here is that this opera exists as homage to the female spirit of independence and has a radical aspect that is utterly contemporary.
There are many gems in the production. Still marries fluid stage and lighting designs, choreography and dramaturgy to create a seamless collage of tableaux. The foxes and vixens are dressed more like gypsies than animals, they carry their red tails in their hands just as the cock carries his genitalia in his. There are similar intriguing visual devices. The hens in the harem look like chorus girls. The cock is dressed as an eighteenth century bandit. The mixture of time zones in the costumes makes this feel as if there are references to youth culture in Camden Market.
It is a spirit of anarchy, musically, textually and visually, which is set up here as a challenge to the dullness of daily human life. Still’s wonderful evocation of lewdness has a wild and welcome vulgarity inspired by short texts by Rudolf Tésnohlidek as well connecting to Janá?ek’s music which contains elements of Moravian folk. The composition is also totally original to itself and the bizarre nature of the story.
Mirjam Frank writes in the programme that the opera was probably inspired by the elderly composer’s love affair with the younger Jewish Kamila Stösslová, who was also the muse for other of his works. The Roma look of the vixen, in costumes designed by Dinah Collin, reflects, according to archivists, Janácek’s view of the Jewish beloved, as a kind of gypsy. Woman as animal is also the theme of the 1924 novel by David Garnett Lady Into Fox which was made into a ballet by Andreée Howard in 1939. However it is not the human–made animal that fascinates Janácek rather the opposite. The meta-level here is the male chase of the dangerous, anarchic, erotic, exotic animalistic woman/the Jew/the Fox. This is heightened in Still’s imaginative coup of having the vixen be married to her fox fiancé by a wunder-rebbe. In Freudian terms this is an era where the projection of sex on to the foreigner/The Other-as-animal, is openly expressed within opera and ballet.
The music is quirky and audiences are not going to go out singing it. However it works as an entry into a peculiar world and The London Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Czech conductor Jakub Hruša, play with a bravura and a defiance that seems to cancel out Brexit. Russian soprano Elena Tsallagova as Vixen Sharp Ears is magnetic of voice and performance. She has a stage presence that is arresting in her quixotic rendition of the vixen. Czech soprano Alžbeta Polácková makes a great fox husband and lowers her centre of gravity so well that she convinces as a young male.
The sense of a strong and imaginative directorial style makes for a synthesis of total theatre here. This opera has many spaces for directorial imagination and Still offers an eclectic choreographic vocabulary that suggests glances to vaudeville, German Expressionism and postmodernism in Mike Ashcroft’s clearly defined dance sequences. This is a fabulous opera that brings pre-war Moravian fantasy and psychological exploration to Glyndebourne in a most exciting way.
Julia Pascal © 2016.