Reflections on Janáček’s characters by Colin Graham and Barry Kay
At the beginning of the first scene the Grasshopper tells the Cricket that there are no new tunes to play on his hurdy-gurdy. This is the first indication we have of the philosophy that underlies Janáček’s opera. For, in spite of the clear story-lines that run parallel in the opera, this is no mere animal allegory. In the last scene, as in the first which takes place in the same spot a year earlier, the Forester lies dreaming in the spring forest, wondering at nature’s miraculous circle of life. This, indeed, was dear to Janáček’s heart: Têsnohlídek’s stories had provided him with a theme concerning his beloved Nature and its hidden charms, things he had so often observed and knew so well.
His contrasting and combination of identities of humans and animals is something quite unique in opera; the modest Schoolmaster pursuing his illusory love and Lapák, the dog, who writes love songs and has no one to sing them to but himself; the celibate Parson, who feels he must leave his parish because of the attraction of Terynka, the gypsy girl, and the crusty Badger who is turned out of his hole by Sharpears, the vixen; the continually stressed analogy of the Vixen herself and the gipsy girl whom the Schoolmaster, as well as the parson, is in love; and the final pointing of this analogy when Harašta, the poacher, after shooting the Vixen, marries Terynka and gives her a fox-muff as a wedding present. But although Sharpears is dead, her children live to continue the cycle of Nature.
Throughout the opera Janáček has observed the animals with loving accuracy and finds a surprising affinity between them and the humans of the story. We see Sharpears change from a playful fox-cub into a beast of prey, from a desirable and desiring lover to a contented and protective mother. Janáček gives the Vixen rare female intuition and native cunning and draws her with extreme tenderness.
The Cunning Little Vixen gave him a great deal of pleasure to write in his old age when he turned from the stark dramas that preceded it like so many men of genius to the beauties and relatives of Nature. There is no moment in the score which is not imbued with this love of Nature and Humanity and with his humour in observing it. Yet at the same time as making full use of natural speech rhythms and inflexions, for animals as well as humans, he has never tried to imitate sounds of nature literally, but instead has translated them into his own musical idiom. In the same way we intend the Sadler’s Wells production to give this same impression of realism rather than attempting a slavishly literal one.
For instance, the animal costumes never attempt to distort the human figure, but, rather, to exploit any similarities there may be between the animal human characteristics of dress or figure. Neither, conversely, will the animals be dressed in any kind of human garment. The same applies to the animals’ movements. Janáček has given many of them human foibles, actions, and even certain accessories, such as the Grasshopper’s hurdy-gurdy and the Parson-Badger’s pipe.
In the last scene of the opera Janáček has identified himself with the Forester, the key figure of the opera which, while it may be a figment of his (the Forester’s) imagination, it is in fact a profound expression of Janáček’s philosophy.
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The Cunning Little Vixen will be given its first performance in England at Sadler’s Wells on March 22nd [1961; ed.] in a new translation by Norman Tucker. The conductor will be Colin Davies [Davis; ed.] and it will be produced by Colin Graham and designed by Barry Kay. The very large cast will include June Bronhill as the Vixen, Neil Easton as the Forester, Kevin Miller as the Fox, Harold Blackburn as the Parson-Badger, Raymond Nilsson as the Schoolmaster-Dog, and 36 children, 12 of whom will have solo roles.