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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 19 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 38
An opera unlike any other
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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An opera unlike any other

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

THE CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN
GLYNDEBOURNE
OPUS ARTE DVD


As conductor Vladimir Jurowski explains in the 22-minute bonus video on this DVD, composer Leoa Janácek put right in the score exact stage directions, which Jurowski says were followed very faithfully in this Glyndebourne production of The Cunning Little Vixen. For an absolutely fascinating discovery of what those directions were and of how other directors chose NOT to follow them, take a little trip on a YouTube search for this opera. From a complete NYC Opera performance to an excellent animated film of the complete work, you'll find how other creative minds tackled this unusual show. Each has clear advantages over the others.

The production on this DVD, from Glyndebourne's 2012 show, is at least as good as the best I've seen. The singing and acting are excellent. The sets are creative and fun throughout. And the way the many animals are portrayed is novel and effective. Especially delightful is the choice of making the barnyard chickens into sex workers who are oppressed by the abusive cock. His demise, along with theirs, is a hoot. Wonderful lighting visually separates the animal scenes with bright colors from the human scenes, which are more muted with earth tones. The actors and singers who have animal roles suggest their identities with subtle effects rather than with animal costumes. The foxes, for instance, carry large tails with which they sometimes communicate emotions. The cock parades his impressive blood red 'member' as he has his way with his ladies. (You have to expect such sexual bluntness in European operatic shows, which are generally less inhibited by Puritan sensibilities.)

No matter how entertaining the production, the glory here is Janácek's music. The dts Digital Surround sound is quite good in giving us the details of the brilliant score, and Jurowski brings out every nuance. Those details would be worth paying attention to if one could ignore everything else going on. Delightful choreography makes visible what the orchestra is saying and adds greatly to the atmosphere of the forest home of the animals.

Two characteristics of Janácek's writing take some getting used to in order to fully enjoy this opera. The first is his setting the Czech language to music. His focus is on making the vocal line as much like the spoken language as possible. This means we do not get long, beautiful melodies, as in Verdi or Puccini, for example. There are virtually no hummable tunes here. Yet the music is often lush and always expressive. The second related characteristic is the rather jerky intensity of the music. Sudden jabs of sound, while not a-tonal, can at first seem discordant. The musical themes come fast and short. Once one's ear adjusts to this style, the lyric flow becomes apparent. There are brief moments of ecstatic expansion, when the whole orchestra explodes like fireworks in expressions of joy.

While the story does have a narrative tale, this opera is more a series of lyric portraits that contrast the animal world with the human, neither of which is more important than the other. It's a circular tale about the beautiful and sometimes violent nature of life. The central animal character of the vixen dies, but her offspring carry on the cycle. In the final scene, a man who attains wisdom sees the beauty of it all.

Because Janácek is so original and daring, you must jettison your preconceptions of what opera should be like in order to enjoy and come to love this work. (The behind-the-scenes video bonus is actually a quite helpful introduction, as is the lengthy article in the booklet.) This Opus Arte DVD is a good place to start.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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