Born in Hukvaldy, Moravia (now Czech Republic), July 3, 1854; died in Moravská Ostrava (now Czech Republic), August 12, 1928
Arranged by Václav Talich, with revisions by Václav Smetácek
Is there any less plausible subject for a full-scale, three-act opera than Leos Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen? Its Disney-esque plot centers on the life, loves, and premature death of a young female fox in the forests of Czechoslovakia, as well as the other animals, both wild and domestic, that interact with her. Yet since its premiere in the composer’s home city of Brno on November 6, 1924, this strange yet enchanting concoction has gradually become one of the most admired operas of the 20th century.
The reason is not hard to discover: a passionate nature lover, Janáček filled his woodland tale with magical and stunningly original music that captures both the earthiness and the mystery of the natural world.
The origins of The Cunning Little Vixen are as unconventional as the story itself. In 1920, Brno’s daily newspaper began running a series of whimsical, somewhat anthropomorphic illustrations of animals by the artist Stanislav Lolek. They also hired a local writer, Rudolf Tesnohlídek to create a storyline to accompany the drawings, and this series, running to 51 installments, became a huge popular success. Reportedly, Janáček became interested in it when he heard his housemaid laughing over it in the kitchen one morning; she suggested, half jokingly, that this might be a good subject for an opera.
Early in 1922, the composer created his own libretto based on several key episodes of the cartoon series and then wrote the score over the next two years. But he added a depth and grandeur to his treatment scarcely imagined by Lolek and Tesnohlídek. While retaining the naïve charm of his animals (the leading roles are performed by adult singers, the smallest creatures by young children), he also included human characters — a Gamekeeper, a Schoolmaster, a Poacher, and a Parson — whose lives and psyches are entangled with the animals and especially with the Vixen herself.
Initially, the humans are represented as the enemies of the animals; in the first act, the Gamekeeper (the opera’s central human character) captures the Vixen as a little cub and keeps her as a mistreated pet in his farmyard. Later when she attacks the rooster and the chickens in the yard, he beats her, and when she finally escapes back to the woods, he tries to shoot her. In the forest, the now grownup Vixen falls in love with the handsome Fox, and they have a litter of little cubs. But the Vixen remains a free and mischievous creature, and when she taunts the Poacher by stealing his chickens, he kills her.
Janáček, however, did not see this as a tragic ending. Instead, he added a final scene in which the Gamekeeper returns to the forest and has a dream in which the Vixen, whom he has grown to love, seems to have returned to life. But it turns out that the new little fox is the Vixen’s daughter, her exact replica. The music rapturously celebrates the miracle of Nature’s continuing renewal. Now enlightened about the interlocking relationship between all living beings, the Gamekeeper throws away his gun for good.
The orchestral suite we’ll hear was not created by the composer himself, but by the Czech conductor Václav Talich after he led a revival of the opera in Prague in 1937. The music is drawn from the extended scene preludes and orchestral interludes Janáček created for his opera; they are among the most beautiful and moving portions of the score. Janáček’s creative approach was to build up his music from powerful short melodic motives that he continuously repeated and developed; you will hear a number of these in the Suite’s two movements. The composer’s unique sound world — spare (though slightly fattened up by Talich) and pungently colorful — creates a hypnotic portrait of the natural world he loved so well.
Instrumentation: Four flutes, two piccolos, two oboes, English horn, three clarinets, piccolo clarinet, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, celeste and strings.