Animal Instinct: Janacek's 'Cunning Little Vixen'

From Houston Grand Opera

WHO'S WHO?

  • Lisa Saffer ........ Vixen
  • Hector Vasquez ...... Forester
  • Fiona Murphy ............ Fox
  • Ekaterina Gorlova .... Young Vixen
  • Jennifer Root ..... Forester's Wife
  • Maria Markina .... Lapak the Dog
  • Liam Bonner ....... Harasta
  • Beau Gibson ..... Pasek
  • Bradley Garvin ...... Parson
  • Alicia Gianni ...... Rooster
  • Rebekah Camm ..... Hen
  • Ryan McKinny ....... Badger
  • Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus
  • Patrick Summers, conductor

When operas first appeared about 400 years ago, they tended to be based on great stories of the Western tradition — mythological tales and historical legends.

Maria Markina as the Dog with Lisa Saffer as the Vixen

hide captionIn Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen, from Houston, Lisa Saffer (right) plays the title role, with Maria Markina as Lapak the Dog.

Andrew Cloud / HGO

The first great opera ever composed, Monteverdi's Orfeo, is a good example. It's based on the legend of Orpheus, the musician and poet who journeys to the underworld to bring back his dead wife, Eurydice.

Lately, new operas aren't always so traditional; it seems we've come a long way since Monteverdi. A Russian composer, Vitali Okorokov, has written an opera called Monica Lewinsky, featuring an aria — sung by a CIA director — called, "I did not invite you, Monica, for a cocktail."

Then there was a recent opera in London by composer Richard Thomas, called Jerry Springer: The Opera. It may sound preposterous, but it earned 8 nominations for the Laurence Olivier Awards, the top theater accolades in London.

Still, today's opera composers aren't the first to begin thinking outside the box. Early in the last century, Leos Janacek created brilliant operas out of what, on the surface, appeared to be equally loopy ideas. In 1920, he set part of one opera on the moon. The odd creatures living there turn out to be fussy art aficionados.

A few years later, Janacek turned to another offbeat source for operatic inspiration — the funny pages. He turned a serial comic strip from a local newspaper into The Cunning Little Vixen, one of his most touching and inventive operas. The "Vixen" is a female fox — not a cinematic sexpot or a soap opera star — and Janacek's score tells an ingenious tale, populated by forest and barnyard animals, that has much to say about the relationship between humans and the environment.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a production of The Cunning Little Vixen from Houston Grand Opera, sung in English and starring Lisa Saffer in the sharp-eared, title role.

The Story of 'The Cunning Little Vixen'

Lisa Saffer and Alicia Gianni as the Vixen and the Rooster

hide captionThe Vixen (Lisa Saffer, left) taunts the arrogant rooster (Alicia Gianni) in Houston Grand Opera's production of The Cunning Little Vixen.

Andrew Cloud/Houston Grand Opera

ACT ONE: It all begins on a sunny, summer afternoon in the woods. The Forester is taking a nap and around him, flora and fauna are in full swing. Crickets waltz, dragonflies buzz and a frog leaps after a mosquito, landing on the Forester's nose. He wakes to find a little fox cub and takes her back home as a pet for the kids.

In the Forester's yard, several months later, the fox cub has become a mature, and cunning, vixen. She discusses love with Lapak the dog, brushing off his advances. She also nips at the heels of the Forester's two children, Frantik and Pepik. The Forester ties the Vixen up and, as night falls, she dreams that she's transformed into a young girl.

At dawn, Lapak and the Rooster warn the Vixen not to be such an upstart. "You shouldn't have licked the dishes," the dog advises. The Vixen has advice of her own for the submissive hens in the barnyard. She says, "Friends, sisters, abolish the old order. Create a new world where you'll get your fair share." The selfish Rooster takes offense. A squabble breaks out, and the Vixen — true to her nature as a fox in the henhouse — begins killing the birds. The Forester and his wife put a stop to the commotion, but the Vixen bites through her leash, knocks over the Forester and escapes back to the woods.

ACT TWO: In the forest, the Vixen is hoping for a peek inside a luxurious badger burrow, but Mr. Badger says no way. Insults fly and the Badger begins pummeling the Vixen. After vociferous support from the local animals, the Vixen is spared. As repayment for her beating, she uses the Badger's burrow as a toilet, saying "Here's something feminine for you, just to show you I'm considerate!" That's enough to drive the Badger from his burrow, cursing the neighborhood as he leaves. The Vixen quickly slips into the abandoned space.

The scene switches to a local Inn, where the Forester and the Schoolmaster are at the bar playing cards, joined by the local Priest. The Forester sings a song about the passing of time and the men gently rib each other, commenting on events in their lives. Night falls, and a short interlude brings us to a forest path. The Vixen observes the tipsy Schoolmaster making his way home, mistaking a sunflower for a girlfriend. The Priest comes along, too. His mind wanders back to a girl he once knew. All are startled by a shotgun blast. It's the Forester, taking aim at the Vixen.

The scene changes again, to the door of the Vixen's burrow. She hears rustling nearby. It's a male fox — and handsome, too. By the moonlight she tells him her life story. After a few awkward moments the two fall in love, and retreat inside the burrow. From above, an owl and a blue jay comment on the situation. Soon the two foxes emerge and announce their impending marriage, to be administered by the Woodpecker, and they celebrate with a rambunctious dance.

ACT THREE: Time has passed and now the Vixen has a family. The scene is a clearing in the forest. Harasta, the poultry dealer, sings a folk song, and notices a dead rabbit beside the trail. So does the Forester, who also spies part of a fox tail nearby. Thinking it must belong to the Vixen, he sets a trap and they both leave.

The Vixen, with her husband and their family of little cubs, sees the trap for what it is. When Harasta walks by with his bag full of poultry, the Vixen senses an opportunity. She feigns an injury. When Harasta goes for his gun, she lures him into the forest where he trips, falling flat on his nose. Quickly, the foxes dig into Harasta's poultry bag. But before they finish he returns with his gun, and fires. They all scatter, except for one — the Vixen, who lies dying.

Meanwhile, at the local Inn, the mood is melancholy. The Schoolmaster is sad to hear that the woman he fancies has married someone else. The Forester feels old age coming on, and they both miss their friend the Priest, who has moved away.

The opera's final scene reveals some of Janacek's most passionate, lyrical music. The Forester sets out for home, walking through the woods. A sweet memory comes back to him — of gathering wild mushrooms with his wife, as a young couple in love. "Is it real or a fairy tale?" he asks himself. At peace with his beloved woods and with himself, he lies down for a nap and the scene mirrors the very opening of the opera. Animals hover around him as he dreams about the Vixen. But as he reaches out to grab her, he finds only a frog, the grandson of the frog that landed on his face in Act One. The opera ends as the Forester quietly lets his gun slip to the ground.

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