The Cunning Little Vixen



I suppose like many people who’ve heard this opera, my initial exposure was by way of Charles Mackerras’ outstanding set. It’s got Lucia Popp in the title role doing a splendid job, and the Vienna Philharmonic play splendidly, as one would expect. Anyhoo, while I’ve always enjoyed it, it’s always rated lower in my estimation than Jenufa and, my favorite, Kat’a Kabanova.

This past weekend I happened upon a used copy of Vaclav Neumann’s 1980 recording of the work with the Czech Philharmonic and an all-Czech (or at least all-Slavic) cast. Why not buy it? I’m glad I did. First of all, the cast is excellent overall, and they all sing the parts most convincingly. Magdelena Hajossyova is excellent in the title role, and if she ultimately is not up to Ms Popp’s performance, hers is appropriately clever, humorous, and touching, as the situation warrants. Richard Novak is superb as the Forester, never presenting him as a single faceted character. But for me the best singer of the lot is Gabriela Benackova as the Fox. Her beautiful voice, precise control, and superb characterization all combine to make her the star of the show for the short time she sings. Really, between this and her performances in The Bartered Bride, Rusalka, and her great Dvorak song recital disc, she has become one of my favorite sopranos, and I only wish there were more recordings with her in core rep roles.

(Since it had been a while since I last listened to the work, I had forgotten how good the libretto is, filled with wit, innuendo, and a bit of political posturing. Kent Nagano has led a truncated recording which is allied with a cartoon so as to make the work more accessible for children, but this really is not a work for kids. I must assume they changed or cut some of the dialogue.)

As good as some of the singing is, the main thing that got me this time around was the score. While this work lacks the dramatic power of Janacek’s two more famous works, much of the piece is more sophisticated and the orchestra is handled as though by a master craftsman. The prelude to Act II has all of those telltale Janacekian sounds and devices, and it really grabbed my attention. The use of a chorus at the beginning of the love duet between the Fox and the Vixen is inspired, and the music during the whole duet is beautiful and never overdone. Indeed, much of the work is minimally scored, with passages moving back and forth between the winds – sometimes sole instruments – and the strings, with only relatively rare tuttis. Everything is perfectly crafted and basically rhapsodic in approach. And the Czech Philharmonic is ideal for this work. All told, I have to give the edge to the Neumann set, though Popp’s singing alone makes the Mackerras set a great recording.

I’ve not yet heard (and watched) the Mackerras DVD which has received some solid praise, and I am going to have to investigate Janacek’s other two big operas in the near future. Ultimately, I still consider Jenufa and Kat’a Kabanova better works, but the Vixen is a joy, especially in this recording.

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