From the director notebook (The Cunning Little Vixen)

From the director notebook (The Cunning Little Vixen)

The Cunning Little Vixen is the most perfect opera by the 20th century’s most significant opera composer. That may sound like an extravagant claim, but I have no hesitation in believing it to be correct. It handles two essential and profound themes – the relationship between man and nature and the natural cycle of life from birth to death – and does so with humanity, humour and brevity – three essential virtues!

The relationship between man and nature is essentially predatory, because this is in itself part of the natural law of things, and Janacek shows no sentimentality in portraying this. The Vixen kills and is killed, and Janacek mourns the passing of something beautiful even as he celebrates the creation of something beautiful. Death has an essential place in man’s relationship with nature, and birth and death are the two most unavoidable facts about man’s life on earth. In nature, the animal instinct to procreate ensures a happy and uncomplicated attitude to sex. In humans, particularly those under the thrall of Judeo-Christian religions with their guilt ridden fear of sexuality, there is nothing simple about sex. Janacek was himself a man trapped inside an unhappy marriage, and poured his intimate knowledge of dysfunctional human emotional life into the portrayals of a gallery of miserable men: the priest who is haunted by his quasi paedophile relationship with a young girl, the impotent schoolmaster with his yearnings for the unattainable gypsy girl “Terynka”, the Forester, more in love with his rifle than his wife! It is very characteristic of the work’s un-sentimentality that the only human being who is really functional is the Poacher – a kind of half animal himself, and he is of course the one who is finally able to kill the Vixen. The Forester himself is saved by the fact that at least his gun is still firing! Death and violence are an essential part of the natural order: this opera will have no truck with mealy mouthed “animal rights” activists!

The domesticated animals, the frustrated dog and the exploited chickens, are equally seen as emotionally warped, whereas, by contrast, the Vixen displays a vividly amoral, instinctively liberated persona. In this, she joins a very distinguished list of mythically potent operatic characters who express the same kind of dangerously liberated asocial and amoral appetites, and all of whom unleash a chain of destruction among members of “normal society” whose revenge is in each case to stamp out their very existence. They are, of course, Don Giovanni, Carmen, and Lulu.
The first two operas in this list are masterpieces, but the comparison with Lulu is particularly instructive. Both Vixen and Lulu were written more or less at the same time and barely 100 hundred miles apart, and both embody a certain amount of satirical material only really relevant to the 1920s – references to film, jazz, suffragettes, smoking and so on. But dramaturgically, Lulu is a mess, vastly over long – with the tragic result that Berg was unable to finish it, or perhaps, realising that it was very imperfect, could not bring himself to finish it. For Wozzeck, Berg had cleverly chosen a play that was already completely modern in its dramaturgy – prefiguring Brecht by about 100 years! - and breathtakingly concise. Faced with the rambling picaresque character of Wedekind’s text, Berg revealed himself as a helpless dramatist, unable to take the essential steps to condense this material into an appropriate text for an opera. Janacek, on the other hand, was an absolute master at manipulating apparently impossible material into a viable dramatic shape. Both Vixen and From the House of the Dead demonstrate this astonishing ability which Janacek seems to have learnt entirely on his own: there are no models in operatic literature that give any hint of the dramaturgy of these two utterly original masterpieces.

One may call Janacek’s method in these pieces “modern” because it is essentially cinematic – proceeding not by linear narrative but building up a narrative collage through the juxtaposition of scenes and ideas and “cutting” between them with great rapidity. This restless, fragmented style instinctively mirrors the mentality of the 20th century whereas, by contrast, the many fine operas by Strauss and Puccini are still essentially 19th century in their thinking. Janacek’s adventurous operas (Osud, The Excursions of Mr. Broucek, Vixen and From the House of the Dead) remain modern to this day. There is, however, no evidence at all that Janacek himself had any contact with the cinema – his “cinematic” style is simply evidence of his acute and instinctive sense of the Zeitgeist.

Janacek’s “fragmented collage” style also demonstrates his total mastery of every available operatic technique, and the way in which they can tell a story by their relationship with each other. In The Vixen, there is dance, chorus, wordless chorus, recitative, song, and marvellously appropriate orchestra commentary to both action and intense, personal reflection. It is in fact a true “Gesamtkunstwerk” achieving everything that Wagner meant by that term in about a tenth of the time he required! In the first Act, for instance, when the little vixen cub is imprisoned in the Forester’s yard, she has a sunrise vision of herself as the sexually active person she is about to become, in the middle of which she simply groans once: “Ouw ouw!” Isolde takes about 300 lines to say the same thing!

Janacek’s libretto is sophisticated as well as concise. When the three drunk men get lost in the dark on the way back from the pub, each is defined by a symbol of their sexual deficiency. The Schoolmaster enters and gives us a little lecture on how his stick gives him a third leg with which he can stand up, and when he takes it away he instantly falls down. The Priest enters with a pipe that wont light! Only the Forester’s gun is “still firing” as we have already noted. The Vixen’s last act before she is killed, and probably the real reason why he kills her, is to bite the Poacher “on the nose.”!
The Vixen’s ultimate triumph is that coming from the pen of an old man himself emotionally frustrated, it is a deeply profound work brimming over with humour and able, at the end, to embrace death with joy. That is surely one of the greatest lessons that Art can give to mankind!
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