Wednesday 9 July 2014

Janáček - The Cunning Little Vixen (Vienna 2014 - Webcast)

Leos Janáček - The Cunning Little Vixen

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna - 2014

Franz Welser-Möst, Otto Schenk, Chen Reiss, Hyuna Ko, Gerald Finley, Donna Ellen, Andreas Hörl, James Kryshak, Donna Ellen, Wolfgang Bankl, Ilseyar Khayrullova, Lydia Rathkolb, Heinz Zednik, Wolfram Igor Dentl, Sabine Kogler 

Vienna State Opera Live Web streaming - 30 June 2014

Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen is proving to be one of the most popular works of 20th century opera, and it's not hard to see why. The music is beautiful, some of the most ravishing melodies ever composed that are instantly memorable as well as being sophisticated and idiomatic. Like the music, the subject is immediate and accessible, looking at the question of existence in a way that makes it meaningful to adults and children alike. It can be heartbreakingly sad, as well as uproariously funny.  It's above all a life-affirming work.

Dealing with as much as it does - all life, nature, the seasons, the passing of time, the idea of being a solitary entity making little connections with others, the loneliness of existence and the realisation that it will end, the necessity of confronting the fact that the world just moves on - The Cunning Little Vixen is also a difficult work to strike an effective balance between the large scale and the small, between the profound and the intimate. Otto Schenk's production for the Vienna State Opera is one of the best balanced versions I've seen.

Balance however isn't everything. It certainly makes the work appealing to the largest, most conservative part of the audience who don't want their preconceptions of the opera challenged. For every choice the director makes however - and here it must be said the choices are mostly safe ones - he necessarily must abandon other ways of presenting the work that can be a little more exciting and enlightening. The primary choice any director has to make with The Cunning Little Vixen is whether to play the animal world as cute and cuddly in a way that won't frighten the children and upset the delicate sensibilities of the audience, or show nature as a more violent and uncontrollable force.

Amra Buchbinder's stage and costume design is lovingly and elaborately detailed. Set almost entirely in a wood that dissolves into a starry night, it means that the beauty of nature is ever-present, even in the scenes at the Forester's lodge and the tavern. All the animals are recognisable and realistic in their costumes, movements and actions without being cute or over-stylised. As important as the beauty of nature is in the work however, the fact that animals behave as animals and not like humans should not be overlooked. Vixen however is fairly harmless here. She doesn't massacre the hens in a frenzied animal bloodlust, for example, even if she sorts the rooster out all right.

While there is a case for making Vixen a little more feral, such an approach can over-dominate as much as making her too cute and cuddly. The human connection to vixen's nature is also vital, and in order to establish that it's not so much a case of making the animals seem more human as much as giving the humans in the work due consideration. The Forester, his reflections on his life, his sense of his relationship with other people and the world around him are a vital part of The Cunning Little Vixen, and surely the aspect that Janáček would most have identified with. There's a sense of disconnect and dissatisfaction in the Forester. He observes and loves nature and his place in the world, but there's something about it that remains beyond his grasp.

He sees what is missing in the vixen, or at least he eventually comes to a better understanding of life through his connection with Vixen. Initially, he just grabs her and tries to own this wild animal, as if he can tame her nature to a condition where it can fit into his vision of order in the world. That of course proves impossible, but in Vixen's escape - although it infuriates him - in her death and her "rebirth", the Forester gains a sense of hope or comes to peace with the idea of progress and renewal, that the world will move on, that nature will look after its own, regardless of our efforts to impose a presence and a will upon it.

Director Otto Schenk brings the kinship of these two incompatible creatures of nature in a very simple way. He brings the Forester and Vixen closer together and even has them embrace at one point. There's consequently a warmth or at least a respect that exists between one for the other, or at least a connection is established showing that they can at least co-exist, even if it's never on common ground. It's not a particularly clever idea but the director at least recognises how important and true it is to the intent of the opera and how critical it is in getting the principal message of the work across in a balanced and meaningful way.

Or at least it's one part of what is needed. What proves to be just as critical to the success of this production - as it often does in this opera - is not so much the casting and performance of Vixen, as the attention given over to the characterisation of the Forester. Gerald Finley's beautiful smooth baritone isn't a perfect fit for every role - he's a little lacking in sufficient character for as complex a personality as Don Giovanni, for example - but the warmth of his timbre and his presence fills the Forester with life and a zest for life. The fact that he can handle the rhythms and expression of the Czech libretto is also impressive. No less impressive is Chen Reiss' bright vixen, and her scenes with Hyuna Ko's adoring and adorable Fox are just delightful. Franz Welser-Möst's delicate reading of Janáček's rhythmic pulse is also sensitive to the varying tones in the work as well as the balance that is achieved on the stage.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper live streaming