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Three DVDs of Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen

1. Geoff Dunbar/Kent Nagano's ANIMATED FILM OF JANACEK'S OPERA
Deutsche Sinfonie-Orkester Berlin, conductor Kent Nagano
OPUS ARTE/BBC OA 0839 [16/9 75 mins including extras]

2. Nicholas Hytner's Production at Theatre de Chatelet, Paris (1995)
Orchestre de Paris, conductor Sir Charles Mackerras
Arthaus 100 240 [16/9 98 mins]

3. Walter Felsenstein's production from Komischen Oper Berlin/Václav Neumann (Filmed 1965, Babelsberger Studios) Asmus, Arnold etc
IMMORTAL 960001 (publ 2004) [4:3, mono B & W, 103 mins]


No opera has been successful in so many guises as The Cunning Little Vixen, and I do not remember finding any production seriously inadequate, nor feel myself likely to tire of it. Inspired by a serial strip cartoon series in a Brno newspaper, it has come home in an animated cartoon video for TV, now on DVD.

Geoff Dunbar's The Cunning Little Vixen does not purport to be a film of the opera and should not be confused with the Hytner/MacKerras Paris production at Le Chatelet. It had to be shortened to about one hour for TV and is at once both naive and subtle. Its wide appeal will join adults who know and love the opera, and children for whom opera is a world apart, as we have proved with grandchildren.

In Kent Nagano's effective reduced version the emphasis is primarily on the animals and these are characterised with drawn cartoon characters of a deceptive simplicity which fits well with the entire conception. Some of the voice-over text for the cartoon characters is more sprechgesang than true singing; a little shock at first but one quickly warms to this approach, which ensures word clarity without any need for English subtitles.

There is a fascinating additional documentary by the director, with demonstration of the stages of animation and an interactive story-board. Altogether one not to be missed. It is a great success and should not be spurned even by collectors who have the other two discussed below.

For a more conventional approach (though happily there is no set convention, and hopefully never will be one) we have Sir Charles MacKerras taking his unsurpassed knowledge of the composer and of The Cunning Little Vixen to Paris. (He has very recently conducted it to great acclaim at the Royal Academy of Music in London.)

In Nicholas Hytner's Paris production of the complete opera the foxes are defiantly human, with no sentimentality in their characterisation. The DVD cover picture of foxy domesticity, with Eva Jenis knitting and her husband Hana Minutillo contentedly smoking a pipe, sets the scene in which humans are a disgruntled lot, full of regrets for life having passed them by. Some of the animals are doubled with the small cast of disgruntled people, with Sarah Connolly notable as the Innkeeper's wife, the Jay and the Cock, who unwittingly leads all his wives to slaughter, falling for the Vixen's trickery.

The forester, Thomas Allen, whose gun is a more trusted friend than his wife, retains delight in the renewal of nature with the passing seasons, which is the opera's central theme, alongside "the melancholy of growing old", a balance between them achieved in the important orchestral interludes between the scenes.

It is, perhaps, a more prosaic staging than some, with a flat uncluttered stage for the animal and insects ballet interludes. I found Jean-Claude Gallotta's choreography at Paris less than inspired, c.p. Maria Bjornson's elaborate tumblings around a hill centre-stage in the famously durable Welsh National Opera/Scottish Opera production, seen in London at The Coliseum in 2001. Those interludes were planned originally to give time for scene changing, as too those in Pelleas & Melisande. Mention of that opera is not irrelevant; Debussy's speech rhythms influenced Janacek's innovatory vocal lines.

The Paris Orchestra responds well to an idiom which may not be their regular fare, and for those who like their home entertainment to have a visual component this is an account of Sharp-Ears Bystrouka well worth acquiring.

The black and white DVD transfer of Felsenstein's historic Komische Oper Berlin production (1957) which finally established the opera internationally, and was released as Immortal 960001 in 2004, has given us inordinate pleasure.

The acting by both adults and children is detailed and fantastic, and most of it easy to follow even if you have no German; there are no subtitles. The sets are wonderfully evocative, indoors and in the forest.

The score is in the capable hands of Neumann, the sound is good and the unnamed cameraman certainly deserved a credit - as too should the choreographer. It is a riveting and moving DVD which should not be missed.

For those who prefer to exercise their own imaginations, stay with the Decca CDs from 1986*, one of Sir Charles MacKerras's legendary series with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, most of them featuring Elisabeth Soderstrom (Decca 4171292).

* For a similar conclusion in a learned discussion read Robert T. Jones

© Peter Grahame Woolf