My operatic grand tour brought me this week to Leoš Janáček’s Príhody Lišky Bystroušky (The Cunning Little Vixen). I have listened to this opera once before, but this week I watched a staged performance for the first time.
The opera doesn’t fit neatly into a genre: it is part barnyard-and-forest fable, part dark human drama, part opera, and part ballet. The story concerns a fox which torments a forester. We spend a good deal of time in the forest with the fox and other animals, a good deal of time with the forester and his neighbours, and the rest of the time somewhere in the middle. It is that middle ground which gives the opera surrealist overtones.
The Cunning Little Vixen has one big problem: it has not a single memorable melody. The orchestral music is lovely enough, often delicate and with plenty of detail and rhythmic vitality, but the vocal lines I found flat and drab. This was disappointing.
When listening to the opera my favourite portions were the orchestral interludes. When viewing a performance on DVD, however, even these sections were ruined by forest animals prancing about on the stage. I am something of a curmudgeon when it comes to ballet and related forms of dance, and this dancing did little to dissuade me from my insouciance. This, too, was disappointing.
Given all these disappointments, I am at a loss as to how to choose an excerpt which I can call a “great moment in opera”. The scene which made me happiest (albeit for all the wrong reasons) was the very last scene of the opera. Here it is, from the DVD performance which I viewed. Thomas Allen sings the forester (and he does a great job with thankless material). The green thing with ball-shaped warts is supposed to be a frog. The excerpt ends about 1 or 2 seconds too soon, cutting off the opera’s final chords.
There have also been a couple of animated versions of the opera made, including at least one in an English translation. Here is a short excerpt (from this DVD). I like this well enough, but once again the clipped and plain manner of singing puts me off.