Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Janáček - The Cunning Little Vixen

Leoš Janáček - The Cunning Little Vixen

Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, 2009

Seiji Ozawa, Laurent Pelly, Isabel Bayarakdarian, Quinn Kelsey, Judith Christin, Dennis Petersen, Kevin Langan, Gustáv Belácek, Federico Lepre, marcella Polidori, Lauren Curnow, Eleonora Bravi

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

Leoš Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen really is one of the great opera works of the 20th century. The music is modern but at the same time it is enchanting and accessible and, most importantly, it's completely in tune with its characters and its subject. That's by no means a simple matter either since the opera deals unsentimentally with a subject as big as the wonder and magic of life, the joys and the sadness it brings and the very nature of how those things are all tied up in the passing of time. All of that is contained in Janáček's score and how it matches the situations. In terms of the singing and the musical performance, this 2009 production at the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino gets everything right, finding the right tone and revealing the true beauty of the work. There's a tricky balance to maintain however in terms of how to pitch the production so that it's not viewed as a children's opera, and that's not managed quite as well in Laurent Pelly's production.

There is a tendency to play up the cuddly animal aspects of The Cunning Little Vixen to make it appeal to a younger audience, when in reality there is nothing at all cute or sentimental about the work. On the other hand, a production that tries to emphasise the human element of the work often loses the necessary balance and the point that the work is a celebration of all life, of human and animal life in balance and essentially the same. The human characters in the opera are very much a part of the cyclical nature of life, just as capable of cunning in matters of self-preservation, just as desirous of winning a worthy partner, but they are also vulnerable to the hardships and cruelty that life, time and change - reflected in the seasons - throws at them. Occasionally when they observe the actions of the animals, they become reflective of their own situations, but it's through Janáček's arrangements that the audience is able to better see the bigger picture.

The Cunning Little Vixen is an opera that speaks our language. It may be sung in Czech and the rhythms might be those that the composer very specifically developed to match the cadences of the Czech tongue, but in a way the music speaks a universal language. Rolling, flowing and swirling, it captures the rhythm of life for animal and humans alike, expressing the deeper connections between them, as well as the measure and the passage of time that puts everything into a context of something greater. Musically, this is a beautiful account of this extraordinary work that uses the full orchestra but lets you see the importance of each individual instrument to the whole (much like the subject of the work itself). The arrangements allow the lyricism and beauty of the actual composition to speak for itself with a delicate touch, but it doesn't manipulate the emotions either. The Cunning Little Vixen should in some respects be matter-of-fact about life. Not wallowing in sentimentality, but acknowledging that even the most significant of events is subject to and diminished by the passing of time.

The pacing is all-important then, and I love the tempo that is measured out here by Seiji Ozawa, allowing the score to breathe and weave its magic, giving the voices of the singers room to place their characters within the fabric of its world, who are subject to its rhythms but view them in their own subjective context. Like the music, the use of voices is an integral part of the work then and it's sung wonderfully here. From the chorus to the individual performers, the singing really can't be faulted, Isabel Bayarakdarian, in particular bringing all the necessary character to Vixen Sharp Ears, much of which comes essentially with the precision and expression inherent within Janáček's writing for the voice. This is as fine an expression of that as you will find. Quinn Kelsey may look a little too young for the gamekeeper, but he sings the role well, and maybe even better than most.

Laurent Pelly's designs for the production are visually impressive and colourful, providing all the necessary situations with a certain amount of style, but it's all a little too safe and sanitised and definitely falls on the side of it being a cute animal opera for children. The badger's set shown in cutaway cross-section is particularly impressive and the transformation of the set from that into Pácek's Inn is brilliantly achieved. The harsh and sometimes unpleasant realities of nature don't really feature, the opera lacking, for example, any blood or mayhem or indeed any frolicing in the hen house. There's only one brief moment where Pelly really tries to draw the connection between the animals and the humans, showing vixen in a dream having the shadow of a young woman, but other than that Pelly lets the work speak for itself.

The production design might not capture the full earthy beauty of the work or its intent, but it still has many good features. The recreation of animals and their movements is very realistic. It's not entirely cartoony either. The foxes in particular look authentically like a mix of human and fox, while the other creatures are similarly easily identifiable. If it is a little too sanitised, this Cunning Little Vixen at least never falls into the trap of sentimentality. As good as they are here, the performances and the music would never allow that to happen, and all the essential points, the purpose and the sheer beauty of this remarkable work come across wonderfully.

The Blu-ray recording of this production captures both the visual qualities and the wonderful performances well in glorious High Definition. The mixing of the orchestra in particular is just outstanding in both the PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks. There are no extras on the disc other than Trailers for other releases, but the booklet comes with an essay and a synopsis. The Blu-ray is a BD25, full-HD 1080/i, and region-free with subtitles in Italian, English, French, Spanish and Korean.