Simon Rattle conducts Janáček’s “The Cunning Little Vixen”

14 Oct 2017

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Gerald Finley, Angela Denoke, Lucy Crowe, Peter Sellars

  • Leoš Janáček
    Příhody lišky Bystroušky (The Cunning Little Vixen) (103 min.)

    Gerald Finley bass baritone, Pauline Malefane contralto, Burkhard Ulrich tenor, Hanno Müller-Brachmann baritone, Angela Denoke soprano, Lucy Crowe soprano, Sir Willard White bass, Anna Lapkovskaja mezzo-soprano, Vocalconsort Berlin, David Cavelius chorus master, Vocal Heroes, Peter Sellars stage direction

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    Peter Sellars on Janáček’s “The Cunning Little Vixen” (19 min.)

“Vixen Sharp-Ears got up to her tricks in the newspaper. I had no idea that she has a keen reader and admirer in a man with silvery hair and sparkling eyes,” wrote the journalist and keen hunter Rudolf Těsnohlídek after a letter had reached him from the composer Leoš Janáček. “I knew who he was, because he is a musician, and I understand nothing about music. Suddenly I heard that the fox had enchanted him, and that he wanted to rewrite her words and deeds in the language of music, the least earthly of all things human.” Through hearing the hearty laughter of his housekeeper, Janáček had become aware of the entertainment supplement of a newspaper in which Těsnohlídek recounted the adventures of a young vixen – while primarily lampooning his own species. Although Janáček was working on Katya Kabanová at that time, he spontaneously decided to set some passages of the amusing animal fable, lovingly drawn by a Prague illustrator, to music and put it on the opera stage.

The first act of Janáček’s opera tells how a young vixen is captured by a forester and has the opportunity to study not only the life of domesticated animals, but also that of the human beings. In the second act, following her escape, she asserts herself among the animals of the forest with shrewdness and cunning and chooses a partner. After her love affair is blessed by young, the fox dies by the bullet of a poacher in the final act of the opera. But just the following spring, the forester doing his rounds discovers a little fox who “looks just like its mother” – and to the beguiling sounds of Janáček’s music, realises the eternal cycle of nature.

Initial parts of the dazzling score in all conceivable instrumental and vocal colours were already written when Janáček contacted Těsnohlídek about rights. As things turned out, he not only had no objections to a setting of his fable, but even contributed a few lines to the libretto of the opera which was premiered in Brno on 6 November 1924. For their concert performances of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker have secured the services of of an international cast of world famous singers, some with many year’s association with the orchestra, plus the 2013 Echo award-winning Vocalconsort Berlin. And they all have just one thing in mind: to enchant their audience for the duration of the concert ...


Nature and the Human Spirit Under the Microscope

Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen

Composed in 1922-23 and premiered in Brno in 1924, Janáček’s opera pioneered something that Walt Disney’s animated films would turn into a fully-fledged art form only a few years later: the elevation of anthropomorphic animal characters to the status of true protagonists. Something literally fabulous. In a parallel world to that of the human figures and alongside the central family of foxes, The Cunning Little Vixen contains singing roles for a dog, a rooster and hen, a badger, an owl, a woodpecker, a jay and a number of other creatures (cricket, grasshopper, frog and a mosquito). This parallel (animal) world has an important reflecting function: the Vixen’s brief domestic happiness, taking place within the recurrent progression of life, love and death, is not dissimilar to the trials and tribulations of the Gamekeeper and the Priest. The same story unfolds in double perspective.

These allusions forming a sort of mirror axis between the worlds of animals and people were already apparent to Janáček’s contemporaries. Nevertheless, the work’s first reviewers understood it primarily as a “nature opera” in the vein of Wagner’s “Forest Murmurs” and other natural scenes in the German Romantic tradition. For example, Viktor Lederer wrote on 27 May 1925 in the Neuer Wiener Journal: “The true motivic thread is the idea that all human speculation is trifling and only the song of Nature is eternal. The opera ends as it begins. Love-life in nature is longer-lasting than human culture ... Very beautiful ... Man alone cannot re-create what God has created ... And the gramophone alone will not bring us nearer to God.

Nature as distorting mirror and vanishing point of a homeless self

Adding a second creative story was, admittedly, not Janáček’s intention, nor was he seeking a reformulation of the Romantic counterworld aesthetic or of the idealization of forest, nature and myth in operas from Der Freischütz to the Ring. Rather he was placing Nature and the human spirit under a microscope. In his close examination of the tiniest details – such as when a fly buzzes round the Gamekeeper’s nose – he makes the tininess literally visible and audible; at the same time, mystical, psychological and natural elements are symbolically superimposed. Without fully comprehending it, the reviewer probably was struck by this novel view of Nature, blurred to some extent by the opera’s multitude of differing focal planes. “Certainly, Janáček has brilliantly observed the atmosphere and many sounds of Nature, even the language of animals, but he has missed one thing: the unity that connects everything to the spirit. If one compares Wagner’s ‘Forest Murmurs’ to Janáček’s, one notices that the German centralizes and focuses everything in the dramatic atmosphere, whereas Janáček decentralizes. While Wagner paints his ‘Forest Murmurs’ as a single impression using a broad brush and heroic spiritual resonances, Janáček converts his unmistakable genius into small change. He loves each flower, each mosquito. He expresses everything, standing above the objects like a God who has created the world a second time but is ultimately no more than a kind of administrator of natural beauties.”

The unity that Viktor Lederer rightly noted in Wagner could hardly have occurred to Janáček, who dedicated himself with the meticulousness of a natural scientist to pitches, timbres, rhythms and sonorities. Instead, Janáček reacted (including in this opera) to the fragmentation of the self that filled the modern artist with a mixture of horror and fascination. Nature was no longer a refuge for humanity but rather a distorting mirror and vanishing point of the homeless self as well as an object of both scientific discovery and industrial exploitation. One can also hear this, as it were, dissecting grasp in The Cunning Little Vixen. “I’m entirely immersing myself in Nature,” wrote Janáček to Max Brod, “but I’m not drowning in it.” Thus the human and animal worlds never form a perfect mirror image. It is constantly subjected to blurring, ambiguity and fragmentation. As the eye looks more intently for enlightenment, what it sees becomes increasingly ambiguous.

Episodic, ambiguous and multi-layered

Shortly after the end of World War I, the journalist and author Rudolf Těsnohlídek was asked by the Brno daily newspaper Lidové novinyto produce a text to accompany 200 line drawings by the landscape and animal painter Stanislav Lolek. Initially reluctant, Těsnohlídek accepted the commission. The resulting comic strip was published serially in 51 parts between 7 April and 23 June 1920 and immediately became immensely popular. It even won a state prize in 1923. When Janáček requested permission to use The Adventures of Vixen Sharp-Ears as the basis of an opera, Těsnohlídek at first thought he was joking. It seemed to him too unoperatic.

But this was precisely what fascinated Janáček: the episodic nature of the story and the cross-fading between anthropomorphic animal characters and human characters leading simple lives. That the overlayering of the animal and human worlds is never congruent or clear-cut was an inducement for him to retain the ambiguities. For example, what role does the girl Terynka play for the men projecting their love and longing on to this figure who remains invisible throughout the entire work? At the same time, the fable-like elements are a constant invitation to wider interpretation: How anthropologically rooted is the Vixen’s story? How political is the Hens’ ill-fated insurgence? How much gender debate in the Vixen’s self-determination? And the music intensifies the play between correspondence and deflection. For a start, the human and animal worlds are significantly distinguished in their musical motifs. Janáček gives those belonging to the former – including people’s domesticated animals – a sharper rhythmic profile, whereas those of the forest animals are full of intricate polyrhythms and more closely interwoven with the sounds of nature. Apart from this audible compositional differentiation, however, one is also aware that the people and animals are using the same sung language. That they are nevertheless unable to communicate with one another is yet another example of the opera’s play with superimposition and allusion.

A challenge for directors

Only with difficulty did the work make its way on to other stages. Though Janáček was already a well-established music-dramatist in the 1920s, the Vixen was not ready to enter the repertoire of European opera houses. Presumably, directors were daunted by the task of creating stageworthy animal characters without trivializing them. This may account for the arrangements (not by the composer) – particularly suites – for non-theatrical presentation. Moreover, there were initially no translations of the libretto, then regarded as obligatory for any opera in Czech. Max Brod, who had translated Janáček’s previous libretti into German, had his troubles with the Vixen. Brod’s “complete rewriting” was intended to make a “practicable opera” out of the Czech original. He was proud of his “refurbishment”, but the composer was not so pleased. Brod’s changes were principally aimed at making the opera less ambiguous and more unified. But this went against Janáček’s basic idea, that The Cunning Little Vixen should be understoodas a play of superimpositions and allusions.

Melanie Unseld

Translation: Richard Evidon

Lucy Crowe, born in Staffordshire (England), studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, to which she was appointed a “Fellow” in 2014. One of the leading lyric sopranos of her generation, the singer has appeared as Adele (Die Fledermaus) and Servilia (La clemenza di Tito) at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and as Eurydice (Orphée et Eurydice), Adina (L’elisir d’ amore ), Susanna (Le nozze di Figaro), Gilda (Rigoletto) and Belinda (Dido and Aeneas) at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London. Further engagements have taken her to Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, English National Opera and the Glyndebourne Festival, where she has enjoyed great success in roles such as Sophie (Der Rosenkavalier), Rosina (Il barbiere di Siviglia), Dona Isabel (The Indian Queen), Poppea (Agrippina), Micaëla (Carmen) and Vixen Sharp-Ears. As a much sought-after concert singer, Lucy Crowe has worked with leading orchestras and conductors such as Gustavo Dudamel, Mark Elder, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Emmanuelle Haïm, Daniel Harding, Antonio Pappano, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Guest appearances include at the Aldeburgh Festival, the Edinburgh International Festival, the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York and the Salzburg Festival; she has also given recitals at London’s Wigmore Hall, New York’s Carnegie Hall and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. With the Berliner Philharmoniker, Lucy Crowe is now to be heard for the first time.

Angela Denoke studied at the Academy of Music and Theatre in Hamburg. After early engagements in Ulm and Stuttgart she appeared to great acclaim as the Marschallin in productions of Der Rosenkavalier at the Berlin and Vienna State Operas in 1997. Since then she has been closely associated with both these houses. In addition, Angela Denoke regularly appears at the opera houses in London, New York, Paris, Munich, Madrid and Barcelona. In concert, she has sung with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. She first sang with the Berliner Philharmoniker in June 1997. Her most recent appearance as a soloist with the orchestra was in September 2009 with Paul Dessau’s Cantata Les Voix; the conductor was Sir Simon Rattle. Her Kurt Weill programme Two Lives to Live was premiered at the 2011 Salzburger Festspiele and subsequently performed at the Vienna State Opera, the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona and, in December 2014, in the Berlin Chamber Music Hall at the invitation of the Foundation. Her jazz and chanson programme From Babelsberg to Beverly Hills was equally successful. Angela Denoke was awarded the German Theatre Prize 2007 for her performances of Strauss’s Salome. In 2009 she was appointed a Kammersängerin by the Vienna State Opera.

Gerald Finley, born in Montreal, was educated at the University of Ottawa, at King’s College Cambridge and at the Royal College of Music in London. His worldwide career has taken him to the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Opéra National in Paris, the Wiener and Bayerische Staatsoper and the festivals in Glyndebourne and Salzburg. After Gerald Finley first appeared all over the world in Mozart roles (such as Don Giovanni and the Conte di Almaviva), he devoted himself to the work of Richard Wagner for several years, including the roles of Hans Sachs at Glyndebourne and the Opéra de Paris, Amfortas at Covent Garden, and Wolfram at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The bass baritone’s multifaceted repertoire also includes roles in operas by Handel, Rossini, Bizet, Verdi, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Korngold, Britten, Adams, Saariaho and Turnage. The artist has also gained international recognition in the concert hall and as a lieder singer. He regularly works together with conductors such as Bernard Haitink, Mariss Jansons, Andris Nelsons, Sir Simon Rattle and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Gerald Finley made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker at the end of September 1994 under the direction of Pierre Boulez in works by Anton Webern and Igor Stravinsky. His most recent appearance as a guest of the Foundation was in a recital at the beginning of December 2016, accompanied at the piano by Antonio Pappano.

Paulina Malefane was born in South Africa in 1976 and grew up in a township near Cape Town. She completed her music studies at the South African College of Music at the University of Cape Town. The soprano is a co-founder and artistic co-director of the Isango Ensemble, an opera company specialising in South African adaptations of classic subjects and which has performed all over the world. Paulina Malefane had her first international success in the title role of Bizet’s Carmen in a new translation by Rory Bremner. Guest appearances by the ensemble have taken her to places including London, Dublin and New York. For the film U-Carmen which set Bizet’s opera in South Africa and was awarded the Golden Bear at the 2005 Berlinale, she contributed to the translation of the libretto into the language of the Xhosa and also played the title role. In 2006, she was involved as a screenwriter and actress in the film Son of Man which was shown at, among others, the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. In the same year, she made her debut at the BBC Proms in the Royal Albert Hall in London with songs by Kurt Weill; she also took on the role of Bess (Porgy and Bess) in Umeå and Malmö. Paulina Malefane made her first guest appearances in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts at the end of 2008. In addition to her musical work, she also works for a local music therapy centre and for the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in South Africa.

Peter Sellars is one of the most unconventional and innovative theatre and opera directors of our times. Central to his work on literary subjects is his desire to highlight their relevance to the political and social questions of today. On graduating from the Phillips Academy in Massachusetts in 1975, he studied literature and music at Harvard University, making his debut as a stage director in New York in 1980. After a further period of study in Asia, he became director of the Boston Shakespeare Company in 1983 and the following year was appointed director of the American National Theatre Company in Washington, DC. Sellars has staged operas in major houses all over the world, including the Dutch National Opera, the Opéra National de Paris, the San Francisco Opera and the Salzburg and Glyndebourne Festivals. He has championed the creation of many new works, with long-time collaborator John Adams, such as Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic, and works by Tan Dun, Osvaldo Golijov and Kaija Saariaho. Peter Sellars has received numerous honours (MacArthur Fellowship, the Erasmus Prize and the Polar Music Prize among others) and is a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. He is professor at the University of California in Los Angeles. The collaboration between Sellars and the Berliner Philharmoniker began in April 2010 with the St Matthew Passion, followed by the St John Passion in 2014; in the 2015/16 season he was their artist in residence. His most recent project was a concert staging of György Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre in February 2017, the conductor was Sir Simon Rattle.

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