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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
The Cunning Little Vixen (Příhody lišky Bystroušky) (1921-24) [90:40]
rec. live April-May 2016, Frankfurt Opera, Frankfurt, Germany
Sung in Czech with libretto included in Czech and German
OEHMS CLASSICS OC982 [60:02 + 30:38]

Audio recordings of Janáček’s operatic masterpiece, the Cunning Little Vixen, have been scarce, while videos have appeared more frequently. The benchmark in audio format remains the Decca account by the Vienna Philharmonic and Sir Charles Mackerras, whose authority in this music is second to none. This new one by the Frankfurt Opera under Johannes Debus is the first CD recording to challenge Mackerras in both the excellence of the performance and quality of the recording.

Of all Janáček’s operas, the Cunning Little Vixen has a particularly unusual genesis. As told by Janáček scholar, the late John Tyrrell in his documentary account, Janáček’s Operas, the composer’s longtime servant, Marie Stejskalová, would obtain a copy of the afternoon edition of the Brno daily newspaper, Lidové noviny and read the daily installment of the serialized comic, Bystrouška. One day the comic amused her so that she laughed out loud and Janáček asked her what was so funny. When she showed it to him, he was amused and she suggested that he compose an opera on the subject, since he was continually noting down bird calls and knew well the “voices” of animals. In 1922, two years after he had collected every installment of the comic strip, Janáček paid a visit to its author, Rudolf Těsnohlídek. They came to some agreement on Janáček’s using Bystrouška for his opera, though later Těsnohlídek refused to work on the libretto. As was customary for Janáček, he condensed the material by combining and omitting characters. He also altered the original comic’s ending by having the vixen killed by the poacher, Harašta, and the forester musing on his past and contemplating the beauty of his surroundings. The story of the opera became a cycle of life and death and the changing of the seasons for both the animal and the human world. Janáček’s pantheism is as redolent here as in his Glagolitic Mass.

I must say that I was unfamiliar with the cast and music director in this new production, but positively impressed by the results. There is not a weak link among the singers, who perform their roles idiomatically with good diction for the regional dialects of the Czech language that Janáček employs. Likewise, Johannes Debos clearly understands and loves Janáček’s music in one of the composer’s most wonderful scores. As with Mackerras, he does not sentimentalize anything and at times is even terser than his illustrious predecessor. The orchestra plays its collective heart out for him and the recording taken from a live production has that extra frisson one expects from such a source. Sure, there are some stage noises as one might expect and also liberties taken that may not be as literal as one would get in a studio recording. For example, the hens and chickens in Act I are freer, less musical, than on the earlier recording, but more animated and humourous. Their clucking is slightly out of sync with the orchestra, but that may be intentional and it is very funny. On the other hand, there are some orchestral details that come across more clearly in Mackerras’s recording, such as the stuttering bassoon underpinning Frantík and Pepík’s dialogue in the first act, that are all but inaudible in Debos’s account.

While Debos is even more incisive at the beginning of Act II, the tables are turned later for the love scene between the Vixen and Fox, where Debos is more tender with softer timpani strokes. Elsewhere, and especially at the opera’s conclusion, Debos’s timpani are even harder-hitting and clearer than Mackerras’s, impressive as those are. There is little difference in the orchestral “prelude” at the beginning of Act III. Both are powerful and superbly played. The fox cubs in this act, as performed by the children’s choir, are better behaved for Mackerras and not as unruly as for Debus. Again the live production undoubtedly accounts for this. As to the whole, there is really little to choose between Mackerras and Debos musically and one should be totally satisfied with either.

The drawbacks on this new recording of the Cunning Little Vixen have to do with the printed material. First of all, the notes are really inadequate, particularly when compared with John Tyrrell’s authoritative ones for Mackerras. Also, the libretto is printed only in Czech and German, requiring one to follow along in the Decca booklet for an English translation. On the other hand, Oehms’s glossy booklet has copious color photos of the production and principal performers, as well as detailed information on their careers. As a supplement to Mackerras, then, this new account has much to recommend it.

Leslie Wright

Performance details
Louise Adler – Vixen Sharp-Ears
Jenny Carltstedt – Fox
Simon Neal – Forester
Joanna Krasuska-Motulewicz – Forester’s Wife; Owl
Beau Gibson – Schoolmaster; Mosquito
Magnús Baldvinsson – Priest; Badger
Sebastian Geyer – Harašta
Nina Tarandek – Dog; Woodpecker
Michael McCown – Innkeeper Pasek
Britta Stallmeister – Rooster; Jay
Nora Friedrichs – Innkeeper’s Wife; Crested Hen
Ioannis Germanidis – Frantík
Jascha Mössle – Pepík
Isabel Casás-Rama – Frog
Kassiopi Küpper – Grasshopper
Sophia Seeling – Cricket
Lilli Trosien – Young Vixen
Choir and Children’s Choir of the Frankfurt Opera/Markus Ehmann
Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orchestra/Johannes Debus

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