Friday, July 1, 2011


Is there any doubt left that Leos Janacek (1854-1928), though born into the middle of the 19th century, was arguably the first truly modern composer, and a great one to boot. He composed superbly in every conceivable genre.

Janacek’s later music far surpasses the earlier, and if he had not died prematurely at age 74, when he was on a roll, from consequences of his unrequited love for an unworthy woman, who knows what further masterpieces he might have written. But the woman’s daughter was lost in the woods, and Janacek gallantly searching for her caught a chill that led to a fatal pneumonia.

“The Cunning Little Vixen” of 1922-23, premiered in 1924, was the seventh of Janacek’s nine operas, known in Czech as “The Adventures of Vixen Sharpears.” It is  based on a short novel by the journalist Rudolf Tesnohlidek, whose handwriting was hard to read, so that the typesetter mistook sharp feet for sharp ears, a fortuitous improvement.

It was Tesnohlidek’s editor on The People’s Paper who made the young pessimist write a text to some 200 drawings by the optimistic artist Stanislav Lolek, a text its author thought little of, but which nevertheless came out in book form the following year. (An excellent English translation, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, is heartily recommended.)  It seems to have been the housekeeper who brought the Vixen to the master’s attention.

Janacek’s libretto from the novel is much less satirical but more poignant. The animals of the forest and barnyard talk among themselves and understand human speech, but there is no communication between man and beast. This despite the animals’ very human behavior.

The aging Forester captures young Sharpears and she grows up in his yard. She defies the wife’s disapproval and the grandson’s teasing, has a friendship with the dog, and manages to kill the rooster and hens and feast on them. She is punitively tethered, but bites through the rope and escapes into the forest. Various animals, birds and insects live there, and provide commentary on or counterpoint to the main action.

The clever Vixen manages to maneuver the infuriated Badger out of his den, which she takes over. A male fox, Goldenmane, courts and wins her. Married by the Woodpecker, they start a family of many little foxes.  The poultry dealer and poacher Harasta shoots the foolhardy Vixen dead. When the Forester rests at his favorite spot, he mistakes one of the Vixen’s daughters for her mother. Similarly the Frog whom he catches proves the grandson of one he caught long ago. Time has moved on and wrought its changes; the Forester, nostalgically reminiscing, catches the forest’s autumnal mood, shared no doubt by Janacek, now 70.

Along with the largely animal story line there is also the human one. This takes place chiefly at Pasek’s inn, where the Forester and his cronies, The Parson and the Schoolmaster, drink beer and play cards. It emerges that the Forester is not overeager to go home to his formidable wife; that the Parson in his youth had a misadventure with a girl that soured him on women forever; and that the Schoolmaster was in love with a village girl, Terynka, who ended up marrying Harasta. The Forester recalls the amorous beginning of his marriage, its passion now spent. The only fully happy relationship is that of Sharpears and Goldenmane.

In the recent New York Philharmonic version of the opera, the orchestra and its conductor, Alan Gilbert, did solid work. During passages when there was only music all was well. But the theatrics, costumed and directed by Doug Fitch, and choreographed by Karole Armitage, were a less felicitous matter.

There is, to be sure, a problem for theater having to share space with a very large orchestra. Still, Fitch using every kind of gimmickry, made good with last year’s similar offering, Ligeti’s “Le grand Macabre.” But that was a postmodern clown show with no claim on the emotions. Janacek’s delicate and profound work does not take kindly to Fitch’s shenanigans.

Fitch turned the “Vixen” into a kind of kiddy show, largely defanged and cutesy. Thus whereas Janacek’s libretto contains one sunflower, Fitch had some 35 in back of the orchestra, turning a forest into a flower patch. Up front, three or four trees were represented by transparencies suggesting nothing much.

Other things, too, suffered in the relatively narrow space in front of the orchestra, even supplemented by a runway that zigzagged into the front rows of Avery Fisher Hall. With only one level, the Badger’s burrow was a kind of hut. The hens were costumed as lower-class housewives with rubber gloves for crests (the costumes were mostly made of mundane objects transformed with mixed results ), the rooster was a soprano with heavily padded shirtfront. These fowls did not get killed by the Vixen, presumably so as not to alienate children and benighted adults.

The smaller animals were played, as the composer wished, mostly by children, who sang sweetly and executed the simplistic Armitage choreography adequately. Instead of a major ballet number for the Dragonfly, Armitage had one for what was meant to be Terynka (who could guess it?), looking much too sophisticated and even kneeling to commune with the tethered vixen.

The scenery could not deal with Pasek’s inn, reduced to a small, solitary counter plunked down in the middle of nowhere. So the alehouse atmosphere was lacking.

The singing was respectable throughout, with Isabel Bayrakdarian a delightful vixen, vocally, visually and histrionically. She has sung the part in her native Canada in Czech, and found it both onerous and inapposite to sing it in English, given the necessary changes and Janacek’s vaunted musical approximation of Czech speech and animal sounds. Goldenmane, meant to be another soprano, was sung nicely by the mezzo Marie Lenormand. Joshua Bloom’s baritone did handsomely by Harasta; Keith Jameson and Wilbur Pauley satisfied as Schoolmaster and Parson, respectively. As the Forester, the respected bass Alan Opie sang opulently and feelingfully. The closing scene for him and the new generation of beasties was properly moving. Here the pathos of aging and death expectancy is beautifully subsumed by the sense of nature’s renewal, which the music conveyed through fearless motivic iteration.

Sadness and ecstasy were both here, as in most Janacek endings, and what cavils one had with the production were erased through the composer’s genius.


  1. "Turning the cadences of Slavic folk writing into singing English must be comparable to turning W.S. Gilbert into rhymed Bantu." -- Alan Rich, from a review of the 1981 NYCO production

    The link below goes to Mr. Rich's complete review:

  2. Here's a shortened link to the 1981 Alan Rich review mentioned above:

  3. I don't mean in this little comment box to be impertinent nor to flout Wittgenstein's famous dictum -- let alone disagree with Mr. Simon about pre-modern music -- but one of my favorite pieces of Czech music is Allegro ut Pastorella in B for 2 clarinets, 2 French horns, 2 bassoons and tuba pastoralis (a B flat bass alphorn nine feet long), by Václav Havel who, according to the liner notes on my LP cover, was "the otherwise obscure personal secretary to Maria Thaddäus Trauttmannsdorf" (and, if that isn't enough to distinguish him from the more famous Velvet Revolutionary of the same name, his composition was dated 1806).

  4. "Is there any doubt left that Leos Janacek (1854-1928), though born into the middle of the 19th century, was arguably the first truly modern composer, and a great one to boot."

    If there's no doubt that he was, why is he only 'arguably' the first truly modern composer?
    If there shouldn't be any doubt, then Simon should say Janacek was CERTAINLY or INARGUABLY the first truly modern composer.

  5. Iswas,

    That depends on whether argument can produce a result persuasive beyond a doubt (in the arguer's mind). If anything, the "arguably" in the sentence may be redundant, not contradictory -- in so far as certitude is achieved through argument anyway (at least the certitude that matters to thinking men).