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The Cunning Little Vixen Suite

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Leos Janácek
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Cristian Macelaru, conductor / Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin, plays Dvorák and a D.C. premiere Feb. 13 - 15, 2014
© Peter Laki

In his seventh opera, The Cunning Little Vixen, Janácek achieved a true miracle: he took a rather light-hearted story about animals, itself based on a series of comic strips, and turned that story into a deeply moving paean to nature, and to "human" qualities sometimes shown more strongly by animals than by humans. (A more literal translation of the opera's original Czech title, Príhody Lišky Bistroušky, would be "The Adventures of the Vixen Sharp-Ears.") Apparently, it was Janácek's housekeeper, Marie Stejskalová, who first drew the composer's attention to Rudolf Tesnohlídek's illustrated novel, published in a serialized form in Brno's daily newspaper Lidové Noviny, and said to him: "Wouldn't it make a marvellous opera?" This happened in 1920; the opera, whose libretto was arranged by Janácek himself, was completed in January 1924 and premiered in Brno in November of the same year.

In the opera, a young female fox is caught in the forest by a gamekeeper. He brings her home and raises her in his farmyard. Disgusted by the amorous advances of a dog and the servility of the hens, she makes her escape to the forest, where she meets and falls in love with a handsome young fox. They marry and have some cubs. In Act III the Vixen is shot by the tramp Harašta; but the Gamekeeper cherishes her memory, and when she spies one of her daughters in the forest, he is moved to reflect on the passing of time and the eternal renewal of nature.

Because of the numerous animal characters, this opera is extremely hard to stage, and during the first decades after it was written, there weren't as many productions as the wonderful music would have deserved. For that reason, the conductor Václav Talich, one of Janácek's first great champions, made an orchestral suite in two movements which contains most of the music from the opera's first act. There is a large number of purely orchestral segments in the opera (preludes and interludes), but even where there is singing, the instrumental parts are remarkably self-sufficient. Most of the melodic material is, as a matter of fact, played by the orchestra while the singers use a particular vocal style closely following the speech patterns of the Czech language in its Moravian dialect.

In the suite, we witness the awakening of nature in the forest, with the waltz of the mosquito, the skipping of the frog, the capture of the Vixen and the dance of the dragonfly- all from the opera's first scene. This is followed by the scene where the Vixen dreams she is a young girl. Then she wakes up, attempts unsuccessfully to incite the hens to rebel against the rooster, and finally escapes.

Talich made many changes in the original orchestration, making the sound more sensuous and, in the words of one commentator, simplifying "some of the hair-raising instrumental difficulties in which Janácek delighted, and thus to facilitate problems of orchestral balance and ensemble."