Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen in Florence
Italians are not fond of fairy tales. There is very little Italian literature of that kind, even of high quality fantastic books and novels. The same applies to music theatre. Attempts to develop an Italian “Zauberoper” in the 19th and 20th Century were – by-and-large – doomed to fail. The Japanese, particularly love their fairy tales, with its long literary roots, plus a very rich musical theatre. Leóš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen (Příhody Lišky Bystroušky), a fable set to musical theatre, lands in Florence in a new co-production with the Japanese Saito Kinen Festival, with Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa as the musical director. Frenchman Laurent Pelly, a rising star of international theatre, is the stage director and the costume designer, whilst the set are entrusted to Barbara De Limburg Stirum. The Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (one the best in Italy) and an international cast of 13 soloists – to cover nearly 25 different characters - complete the playbill.
On opening night (November 8, 2009), the fable enchanted, indeed enthralled, the Florentine audience and European critics reviewers. There was considerable interest in Seiji Ozawa, as he has reduced his conducting duties to a comparatively small number of fully staged operas every year. There was also interest in Laurent Pelly’s stage direction, especially after the semi-flop of his Traviata in Santa Fé and Turin – the entire plot was set in the Parisian Père-Lachaise grave yard. The Cunning Little Vixen has been seldom staged in Italy, even though in the last ten years the opera was seen at the Spoleto Festival, La Scala and La Fenice.
The opera was based on a novel published by installments on a Brnò’s daily paper, as a set of cartoons giving life to both human and animal characters. The cartoons compare and confront two different worlds: the gritty, petty and hypocritical lower middle class of a small town, and the healthy and generous animals of a nearby woods. There, the animals – first of all the cunning little vixen – live in full freedom and nature regenerates itself. The action does not have a dramatic development (like Jenufa, Kat’ia or Makropoulos) but is made up of a number of episodes welded into a coherent structure by the music – mostly by a continuous forest’s murmur. In the middle of the third act, the vixen is shot by the gamekeeper, but with a real coup de theatre, in the final scene of the opera she seems to appear again in full bloom and with her very cunning eyes. In short, the forces of nature are stronger than that of mankind; sensual and physical love are at the root of such a strength, an optimistic outcome of Janáček’s meditation on death and rebirth, which is the dominant theme of his three last operas. In Janáček’s biography, his friend Adolf E. Vaseck recalls that, at the composer’s request, at his funeral service, the Orchestra of the Brnò National Opera played the end of The Cunning Little Vixen as an anthem to the eternity of nature.
Seiji Ozawa chooses the meditation on death and rebirth as the key element of his musical direction. His baton strikes the right balance between melancholic Slavic melody and Richard Strauss’s pagan and pantheistic symphonic approach. He also draws up front Debussy’s influence on The Cunning Little Vixen's orchestration - Janáček knew both La Mer and Pelléas quite well. The Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino provided the right tinta in both the forest and the urban setting.
Pelly’s stage direction and costumes and Barbara De Limburg Stirum’s sets are visionnaire - viz a blown up vision of a naturalistic staging. The forest is lush and at the same time almost somber.
In the excellent international cast, two singers stand out: Isabel Bayrakdarian, the sexy and sensual cunning vixen, and Quinn Kelsey, the brash, albeit, reflective gamekeeper.
text and music
Seiji Ozawa conductor
Laurent Pelly stage director and customs designer
Barbara de Limburg Stirum sets
Lionel Hoche choreography
Peter van Praet lighting
His Wife, The Owl
The Schoolmaster,The Mosquito
The Priest, The Badger
Harašta, a tramp
Pásek, The Innkeeper
Páskova, His Wife
Bystrouška, the Cunning Little Vixen
Lapák, the Dog
Maria Rosaria Rossini
Maria Livia Sponton
The other animals of the wood
Pietro Achatz Antonelli
Orchestra and Chorus of the Maggio
Piero Monti Chorusmaster
Soloists of MaggioDanza
The Children Chorus of Florencee
Marisol Carballo Chorusmaster