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Second Sight - Music with Wilfrid Mellers

12. Civilisation and the Savage State
Janácek's 'Vixen' at Opera North

'... Annabelle Arden's magically imaginative production ...'


Attending Opera North's new production of Janácek's ecological opera, Cunning Little Vixen, in the wake of recent calamitous events in America proved, given humanity's apparent ability to learn by experience, alarmingly pertinent since, bemused, we tend to turn to the animal kingdom to rediscover what 'life' is about. Janácek embarked upon this opera in 1922, when the abysmal First World War was still raw in people's memories; he concocted a libretto which, dealing with his habitual theme of Nature and Nurture, turned out to be a 'slice of life', notwithstanding its fantasticality in contrast with his first two operas that had dealt with raw human emotions in a naturalistic setting. Moreover, Cunning Little Vixen had immediately contemporary roots, triggered from material from a local newspaper, to which Janácek was himself a frequent contributor.

A journalist called Rudolf Tésnohlidék had immense success with a series of animal cartoons, the characters of which became topical and local icons, like the Pip, Squeak and Wilfrid of my English boyhood. 'People just went crazy' over the Vixen Sharp-Ears, especially when Tésnohlidék republished the series in book form, with illustrations by Lolek. It long remained in print as a minor classic of Czech literature, the Vixen's toughness and interrelated grace standing in sharp contrast to the melancholic journalist-author, who was later arraigned for shooting his wife. Whether or not Tésnohlidék did murder his mate, it seems possible that Janácek sensed a parallel between the journalist's domestic situation and his own: for although the composer was in no sense a lethal character, he rebelled, in his late sixties, against a stodgy marriage when he fell desperately in love with a woman thirty-odd years his junior. This woman, Kamila Stösslová, reciprocated his passion with intermittent kindliness, but no more; if Sharp Ears was a wish fulfilment, never was dream fuller of earth and sap.

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Copyright © 27 September 2001 Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK




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