Picks and Pans Review: Janacek: the Cunning Little Vixen
In addition to the title character, a seductive female fox, Leoš Janácek's 1923 opera calls for singers to play a badger, a woodpecker, a dog, a frog, a cricket, an owl and a rooster—as well as a few human beings. There is a ballet for several gnats and a blue dragonfly. The setting is a forest, in summer and autumn. Not a comedy or a children's opera, The Vixen is a fatalistic tale of love, death and the cycles of nature. Tricky to stage, it isn't often seen. (The New York City Opera had a fairly successful go at it last year with sets and costumes by Maurice Sendak.) Recordings., however, allow one's imagination to solve such staging challenges as the frog waking a forester by landing on his nose. They also focus attention on the lush, magical beauty of the score, begun by the Czech composer in his 67th year, when he was at the height of his powers. The Vixen is not a "singers' opera"—there are no great parts. Given the score's haunting melodies and rhythms, based on notations Janácek made in actual barnyards, the orchestra can steal the show. In this case, under Neumann's direction, it does. A skimpy libretto, unclear and devoid of any explanatory text, is the two-record set's only significant shortcoming.