The Cunning Little Vixen directed by Otto Schenk
SHEER MAGIC !
We had a very special day yesterday. Usually we are not very fond of opera streams, especially if we have to watch them on a small computer screen. Indeed, we force ourselves to watch them only when they are particularly interesting new productions. But yesterday we willingly made an exception, because an almost unique opportunity presented itself: an infrequently performed opera was broadcast from the Vienna State Opera, The Cunning Little Vixen by Leoš Janáček. But the real reason this production was so special was the chance to see how the great Otto Schenk would stage the opera.
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Cunning Little Vixen by Leoš Janáček. Opera in three acts. 1923. Libretto by the composer, after the novel Liška Bystrouška by Rudolf Tĕsnohlídek. First performance at the Brno National Theatre on 6th November 1924.
Streamed, recorded: April 11, 2016. Wiener Staatsoper Vienna.
Singers: Roman Trekel, Paolo Rumetz, Chen Reiss, Hyuna Ko, Heinz Zednik
Orchestra: Staatsopernorchester Wien
Chorus: Staatsopernchor Wien
Conductor: Tomáš Netopil
Stage Director: Otto Schenk
The original production, the most recent by the director (we don’t want to say ‘the last’, even though, at the age of ninety, he may no longer find the incentive or the energy to give us another masterpiece) is from 2014, while the performance broadcast yesterday is a revival of 2016, with a different cast. ‘Otti’, as the director is lovingly called by his fans, was absent from Vienna Staatsoper’s new productions (if our research is correct) since his staging of Die Zauberflöte in 1988, and as anyone can guess, his return in 2014 was a long and eagerly anticipated event.
The idea of the opera, unique of its kind due to the presence of two parallel but intertwined stories of animal and human characters, was suggested to the musician, who is also the author of the libretto, from a children’s story published in a Bern daily newspaper, and his work preserves intact, in the music, a fairy-tale atmosphere and, at the same time, the magic of nature’s perpetual rebirth. Anyway, while the original story had a happy ending with the foxes’ marriage, for his opera Janáček made a different choice, with the Vixen’s death but the survival and prosperity of her cubs.
We would not want to do any injustice to the singers of this edition, who are all really very good, starting with the protagonist, the fine Israeli soprano Chen Reiss, who for a number of years has been a resident artist at the Munich State Opera. They all deserve even more appreciation for struggling with the admirable task of singing in a language that is certainly not familiar, namely Czech. But obviously the main interest of this production, and what makes it special, is the superb directing.
By collaborating with the set designer Amra Buchbinder – who also has studied piano, and is therefore undoubtedly eager to preserve, in her work, a strong bond with the music – Otto Schenk gives us a show full of magic, a delightful fairy tale for adults as well as for children, full of suggestions to which one can abandon oneself totally, letting him/herself be carried away by the charm of music and the sheer beauty of sceneries.
It is no coincidence that the Italian musicologist Massimo Mila defined the beautiful, delicate music of The Cunning Little Vixen (in which Debussy’s influences are felt, as well as echoes of Dvorak and Strauss) ‘an uninterrupted murmur of the forest’. And actually this bond is also perceived visually. Immersed in the enchanted forest inhabited by animals halfway between real and fantastic, roaming in a scenario of harmony and peace, but also of beauty and cheerful sensuality, created by Amra Buchbinder and Otto Schenk, we can truly enjoy a show that is a breath of fresh air.
Enjoying so much beauty and such great authentic harmony between history, music and sceneries – in a word, between what we hear and what we see – we cannot help but make the painful comparison between a director who, with imagination, love and great professionalism, ‘stages’, or rather brings to life, in a fascinating way, the opera entrusted to him, and the many, too many, absurd inventions of the ‘modern’ directors we are forced to watch every day.
In this case we do not need pages and pages of ‘Director’s Notes’ to explain the abstruse – or absurd – interpretations, and often ‘corrections’ of the text. It is all in front of our eyes and reflected in the music, and if we want to deepen our insight into the innermost meaning that any work of art conceals, we are free to do so, each of us in his own way and according to his sensitivity.
That’s why it really is a special gift being able to enjoy this most recent example of how a great, truly great man of the theatre, puts himself at the service of the author – and therefore of the audience – to give us an aesthetically beautiful product, totally understandable even in the complexity of meanings that anyone can – if desired – read in the intertwining of the two parallel stories.
In these stories, humans do not come out well in comparison with animals. They are sadder, more dissatisfied, more tied to the past and unable to renew themselves. And even more ‘evil’, too, even when they are happy and satisfied. In fact, Harašta dreams of killing, and actually kills, the fox to get a muff to donate to his bride-to-be, the mythical Terinka, coveted by almost all the men in the story.
And yet perhaps the director also wants to give us a positive message, almost a hope of reconciliation with nature… and with ourselves.
Maybe, just maybe, the gamekeeper actually meets one of the Fox’s cubs, and neither catches nor kills it, but the two fall asleep peacefully together in the forest.
We don’t know, the director leaves us in doubt. He leaves us free to make our own choice and decide for ourselves.