The vixen (Adriana Kucerova) converses with the badger (Slawomir Szychowiak). Photo: Opéra national de Paris/Christian Leiber
Most writers and composers tend to create their greatest works in their early years, but Czech composer Leoš Janáček wrote his most memorable and lasting music during the extraordinary final 11 years of his life, after he met a married woman 38 years his junior, Kamila Stösslová. Although it is probable that the love was neither reciprocated nor consummated, Janáček was inspired in his 60s and 70s to write such operatic masterpieces as Káťa Kabanová (1921), The Makropoulos Case (1926) and From the House of the Dead (1927).
The Cunning Little Vixen (1924) was part of this late flowering, and its musical inventiveness, energy and panache are joyously captured in the Opéra de Paris’s current production. While preserving the schematic nature of the newspaper comic strip from which the story is taken, Janáček transforms an essentially humorous tale of animals into a more profound reflection on the rigors of life and death. Humans and animals interact in a largely unsentimental world, where the often hostile environment means a constant battle for survival.
The story revolves around the capture of the eponymous Vixen (played with verve by the Slovakian soprano Adriana Kucerova) by the Forester (acted and sung with rambunctious charm by Jean-Philippe Lafont). I must admit to having always found it difficult to empathize with the knowing, arch way humans act the roles of animals in plays or operas, but this production is as good as it gets. A host of grasshoppers, mosquitoes and frogs emerge from a glorious backdrop of sunflowers at the beginning, and from then on we are introduced to a wide array of creatures and humans. Although the Vixen eventually does the dutiful thing by settling down and having babies, she is a wonderfully anarchic and independent presence, at one point exhorting the female chickens to rise up against the lazy cockerel (portrayed here with a huge appendage dangling between his legs) before gobbling them up.
The comic-strip origins of the story may explain why we don’t get to the heart of each character as we do with Janáček’s other operatic heroines (like Jenufa or Káťa), but there are still some wonderfully affecting passages, not least the love music between the Vixen and the Fox (sung by Hannah Esther Minutello). And the brutality with which the Vixen’s life is cut short is as devastatingly portrayed as the deaths in his other operas. If you like your operatic heroines to sing for 30 minutes about their impending demise, this is not the opera for you!
André Engel’s direction, Nicky Rieti’s colorful sets and Michael Schønwandt’s energetic conducting of the orchestra and chorus of the Opéra National de Paris make this an ideal summer evening’s entertainment. Although there were many children in the audience on the night I saw the opera, kids of a sensitive disposition should be warned that furry and feathered creatures will die during the opera!
Opéra National de Paris: Place de la Bastille, 75012 Paris. Métro: Bastille. Tel.: 0 892 89 90 90 or + 33 (0)1 71 25 24 23 (from abroad). Remaining performances: July 1, 3, 6, 9 and 12 at 7.30pm. Tickets: €5-€138 (some discounts offered for families with children under 15). www.operadeparis.fr
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