Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Janáček - The Cunning Little Vixen (Brussels, 2017)

Leoš Janáček - The Cunning Little Vixen

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2017

Antonello Manacorda, Christophe Coppens, Andrew Schroeder, Lenneke Ruiten, Sara Fulgoni, John Graham-Hall, Alexander Vassiliev, Vincent Le Texier, Yves Saelens, Mireille Capelle, Eleonore Maguerre, Maria Portela Larisch, Logan Lopez Gonzalez, Marion Bauwens, Kris Belligh

ARTE Concert - March 2017

In theory I like the way that La Monnaie actually take the animals out of their 2017 production of Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen, since the anthropomorphised creatures of the opera are really meant to teach us about human life. Yes, I'm aware that this seems to go against the whole purpose of the work being an allegory in the first place, but the danger with The Cunning Little Vixen is that the baby animals either make the work too cutesy trying to talk down to a younger audience or risk missing the point entirely. The Cunning Little Vixen can be a good opera for young children, but making the opera suitable for that particular audience can involve some amount of compromise.

In practice however, director Christophe Coppens' modernisation and de-animalisation of the work does also involve some measure of compromise with the original intentions of the work, to the extent that it almost - but not quite - distorts the meaning of the work; if you can even figure out what it is trying to achieve. In recognition perhaps that this version doesn't present the work entirely the way that Janáček intended, and does involve some reworking of the libretto (in the translation at least, but not in the actual sung text), the La Monnaie production of The Cunning Little Vixen is prefaced by the title Foxie!

It's not long before you recognise how much the original storyline is distorted in 'Foxie!'. The Forester in this version is something of a security guard for a school, with monitors in his office to keep an eye on the children going wild outside on a summer evening. The groups of children have their own little groups and cliques that match the creatures of the animal kingdom. Foxie is a young red-head girl phoning home for her 'Mami', but unable to get through, so the Security guy takes her across the way to a cafe. When he sees that Foxie still hasn't been picked up and is somewhat in distress, he brings her back to the control room and leads her to a backroom. Then it all goes a bit David Lynch.

The immediate problem that tends to go against the grain of the original to a worrying degree is that it changes the Forester capturing a fox into what looks like a case of child abduction and molestation. Foxie is introduced not into a yard with hens and a cockerel lording it over them, but some kind of surreal brothel from which she eventually escapes. This is definitely not a 'kiddie' version of The Cunning Little Vixen. Arguably, you could wonder whether that is not the underlying context of Janáček's version, which does indeed have a sexual undercurrent that is often played upon in other productions, but it still doesn't feel comfortable in this presentation. But I don't think it's meant to be comfortable, and Janáček's opera certainly doesn't offer any illusions about the harshness and cruelty of nature, and the nature of men.

While some of the imagery is indeed Lynchian, looking like it is a nightmare taken from 'Inland Empire', it's used to suggest a conflict in generational outlooks rather than attempt to probe split personalities or a mind in conflict with itself. There is also something of a Stefan Herheim feel to the production that is similar to his treatment of Rusalka at La Monnaie, where the water nymph was also a prostitute in an similarly elaborate street-scene production. The key difference however is that Herheim uses such techniques to delve beneath the surface of the fantasy to attempt to probe the underlying source or psychology of the story, either from what it tells us about the origins of the fairy-tale or what it tells us about the author and composer. In The Cunning Little Vixen the allegory is already there to allow us to explore and consider the underlying meaning, so any attempt by Christophe Coppens to change that risks altering its message.

But perhaps that's for a good reason. If there is a way of making sense of this production it's perhaps viewing the older Foxie as someone who is being persecuted by society for living an alternative lifestyle. That certainly is one notable change that is made in the subtitles, when Foxie accuses the poacher Harašta of wanting to kill her simply because she is different. That works with Foxie's back-to-nature fondness for the woods, living outside of conventional society. There also seems to be an emphasis on how her unconventional relationship with Goldie scandalises the neighbours, since there is little attempt here to make Goldie a male fox. You have to wonder whether the composer didn't intentionally score the role for a female to provoke just such a scandalous pairing, so there is validity in the production taking this path. The rather heavy petting that goes on between the two women does push this further than you might expect, so definitely not for the kids this one.

The question of how they produce cubs - such an essential element of the cycle of life that is the central theme of the work - is neatly covered by Foxie going on to become a gym teacher for a sports team of young girls. And it is all about allowing the younger generation to live free from the shackles of the tradition and morality of the previous generation, something that doesn't always come across in a more literal adaptation. Whether you find this all as an awkward attempt to fit an unwieldy, contradictory and often inexplicable concept on top of a work that has no real need to have any additional levels added to it, or whether you view the concept as having something meaningful to say about social change and tolerance being a necessary part of the cycle of life from one generation to the next, it does come up with a number of clever ways to make it work together, even if it takes it all a little further than Janáček might have intended.

The unconventional production certainly doesn't interfere in any way with the quality of the singing and musical performance. If anything, it gives the performances a youthful freshness and an extra edge. The role of Vixen/Foxie is sung exceptionally well by Lenneke Ruiten - one of the best performances I've heard of this role in recent times. The Forester is a rather more ambiguous figure in this production, but even there Andrew Schroeder makes it work and even come across as quite touching. There are no weak points anywhere else, all of the roles sung tremendously well. Antonello Manacorda's conducts the orchestra of La Monnaie and it's a vibrant, detailed and sensitive reading of the score that retains the rhythmic pulse and also recognises the folk elements of Janáček's brilliant, hypnotic score.

Links: La Monnaie-De Munt, ARTE Concert