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<<  -- 4 --  Rex Harley    PROFOUNDLY LIFE-ENHANCING

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Wynne Evans is also a natural lyric tenor, who sings with unforced expression. He has fine diction too, an important factor in a production done in English, without the benefit of surtitles. And here we come to one of those vexed questions which no commentator or critic, let alone conductor or interpreter, can agree upon: Czech or English? Mackerras himself prefers Janácek to be performed in the original language only if the cast is wholly Czech, or contains singers with a particular facility for this tricky language. In a programme interview he states, somewhat baldly: 'In the present production, I'm very happy to be performing the work in English.' Elsewhere, however, his thoughts are more revealing:

'Janácek's genius in vocal music lies in his feeling for the rhythms and inflections of the Czech language. Czech words are all accented on the first syllable and often much lengthened on the second, as in the name Janácek itself ... Small, unimportant conjunctions and prepositions receive extraordinarily long accents in speech and all these features of the language help to create the absolutely unique contours, the rise and fall of a peculiarly personal style. That this style is bound up with Czech inflection is shown ... by the immense difficulty of translating his operas into other languages without distorting his vocal line ...'

The fact that it is hard to deliver a Czech libretto accurately has not deterred Welsh National Opera from productions of Káta Kabanová, From the House of the Dead and Jenufa in the original language. Thereby, a Welsh or English audience is given the vocal flavour of the score, with surtitles to ensure understanding. Performances in English can not only sound clumsy in places, but also rely heavily on the strength, or otherwise, of the singers' diction, an issue further complicated if the protagonist herself is not a native speaker of English. The fact is that a substantial portion of the libretto slipped away during this otherwise excellent performance, leaving the audience to piece the narrative together from the action; which fortunately was possible thanks to the clarity of the overall direction, undertaken for the revival by Stuart Hopps, who also provided the superb choreography.

However imaginative and well executed the production, it is the sound-world of The Cunning Little Vixen which is the rock on which everything else is built. And Janácek's orchestrations are unique: not merely are they immediately identifiable, and remarkable; I would venture to suggest that they are inimitable. The Vixen's leitmotif is one of the most memorable, and haunting, musical phrases I know, yet in no way obviously Romantic. Charles Mackerras puts it succinctly: 'His orchestration is strange in that it is very thick at the top and also down at the bottom, with a great tonal hole in the middle.' Emotionally, for me at least, the effect is a distinct and raw immediacy, which is capable of catching you completely unawares, and that was precisely what I experienced in this performance.

The orchestra of Welsh National Opera is a fine orchestra. Those of us who live in Cardiff are used to applauding them, but under certain conductors they excel themselves. There is no finer interpreter of Janácek's vocal scores, certainly in the West, than Sir Charles Mackerras; his experience and sensitivity are unquestionable, but it is the quality of freshness which he brings to any performance, as if he were relishing the music for the very first time, and which he communicates to his orchestral players which made the evening as a whole such a joyous occasion.

And The Cunning Little Vixen is a joyous piece, despite the fact that the Vixen herself is shot by the poacher some time before it finishes. For the composer, by then in his late sixties, crafted a vision of life which celebrates its cyclical nature; where life and death are inextricably entwined, and where the value of life itself lies not in its length but in whether or not it has been lived authentically. The children who play the minor characters -- the caterpillar, the cricket, the little foxes -- embody that sense of new life, and these particular children did so splendidly: each one was perfectly focused and disciplined, yet clearly enjoying every second of their time.

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Copyright © 2 June 2002 Rex Harley, Cardiff, UK

 

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THE WELSH NATIONAL OPERA WEBSITE

WILFRID MELLERS DISCUSSES 'THE CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN'

 

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