The Cunning Little Vixen
The Cunning Little Vixen (Czech: Příhody lišky Bystroušky, lit. Adventures of the vixen known as Sharp-Ears, and, until the 1970s, generally referred to in English as Adventures of Vixen Sharp-Ears) is an opera by Leoš Janáček, with a libretto adapted by the composer from a serialized novella (daily comic) by Rudolf Těsnohlídek and Stanislav Lolek, which was first published in the newspaper Lidové noviny.
The Cunning Little Vixen incorporates Moravian folk music and rhythms within its composition. Described as a comic opera, it has nonetheless been noted to contain a serious theme.  Interpretations of the work, however, remain more varied, ranging from children's entertainment to a tragedy.
When Janáček discovered Těsnohlídek's comic-strip-inspired story and decided to turn it into an opera, he began work by meeting with the author and beginning a study of animals. With this understanding of the characters involved, his own 70 years of life experience, and an undying, unrequited love for the much younger, married Kamila Stösslová, he began work on the opera. Writing his own libretto, he transformed himself into the forester, and Kamila into the vixen and Terynka. He also transformed the originally comedic cartoon into a philosophical reflection on the cycle of life and death by including the death of the vixen. As with other operas by older composers, this late opera shows a deep understanding of life leading to a return to simplicity.
The opera received its Italian premiere at La Scala in 1958 with Mariella Adani in the title role. The work was first staged in England by the Sadler's Wells Opera Company (since 1974 English National Opera) in 1961 – under the direction of Colin Graham, conductor Colin Davis, scenery and costume designs by Barry Kay. In May of 2014 the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst performed an innovative version directed by Yuval Sharon. This production returned the opera to its roots by utilizing animation and hand drawn video sets by the artists Bill Barminski and Christopher Louie of Walter Robot Studios. The production featured the use of hole-in-the-wall carnival cutouts to place the singers heads on the animated bodies of the animal characters. In 1981, the New York City Opera mounted a production in English based on images created by Maurice Sendak and conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas in his company debut. It starred soprano Gianna Rolandi as Vixen Sharp-Ears and baritone Richard Cross as the Forester.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere Cast, 6 November 1924
(Conductor: František Neumann)
|Bystrouška (Sharp-Ears, the Vixen)||soprano||Hana Hrdličková-Zavřelová|
|Chocholka, a crested hen||soprano||Vlasta Kubiková|
|Forester (Revírník)||baritone||Arnold Flögl|
|Forester’s wife (Revírníková)||contralto|
|Lapák the dog||mezzo-soprano||Marta Dobruská|
|Mrs. Páskova||soprano||Jelena Jezicová|
|Schoolmaster (Rector)||tenor||Antonín Pelc|
|Zlatohřbítek (Gold-spur, the Fox)||soprano||Božena Snopková|
In the forest, the animals and insects are playing and dancing. The Forester enters and lies down against a tree for a nap. A curious Vixen Cub (usually sung by a young girl), inquisitively chases a frog right into the lap of the surprised forester who forcibly takes the vixen home as a pet. Time passes (in the form of an orchestral interlude) and we see the Vixen, now grown up into a young adult (and sung by a soprano), tied up in the forester's yard with the conservative old dachshund. Fed up with life in confinement, the vixen chews through her rope, attacks the Cock and Chocholka (who dies from fright), kills the other chickens, jumps over the fence and runs off to freedom.
The vixen takes over a badger's home and kicks him out. In the inn, the pastor, forester, teacher and schoolmaster drink and talk about their mutual infatuation with the gypsy girl Terynka. The drunken schoolmaster leaves the inn and mistakes a sunflower behind which the vixen is hiding for Terynka and confesses his devotion to her. The forester, also on his way home, sees the vixen and fires two shots at her, sending her running. Later, the vixen, coming into her womanhood, meets a charming boy fox, and they retire to the badger's home. An unexpected pregnancy and a forest full of gossipy creatures necessitates their marriage, which rounds out the act.
The poacher Harasta is engaged to Terynka and is out hunting in preparation for their marriage. He sets a fox trap, which the numerous fox and vixen cubs mock. Harasta, watching from a distance, shoots and kills the vixen, sending her children running. At Harasta's wedding, the forester sees the vixen's fur, which Harasta gave to Terynka as a wedding present, and flees to the forest to reflect. He returns to the place where he met the vixen, and sits at the tree grieving the loss of both the vixen and Terynka. His grief grows until, just as in the beginning of the opera, a frog unexpectedly jumps in his lap, the grandson of the one who did so in act one. This reassurance of the cycle of death leading to new life gives his heart a deep peace.
Apart from the Excursions of Mr Broucek, this is Janáček's lightest opera, and, despite the titular vixen's death at the end of the work, it stands in contrast to the often brutally serious nature of operas such as Jenůfa and Káťa Kabanová. In The Cunning Little Vixen, the composer moved away from the more conversational style of previous and subsequent operas in favor of a more folk-like style, and wove into its fabric some of his most experimental opera concepts (ballet, mime, and orchestral interludes).
Janáček based The Cunning Little Vixen 's tonality on modes (similarly to much output during his last decade), expanding the music's harmonic range through the utilisation of the seventh and ninth chords. The composition makes frequent use of folk-influenced rhythms and "sčasovka" (personally-coined term for a short motif), while it has been noted to contain similarities to the music of French composer Claude Debussy.
At Janáček's request, the final scene from The Cunning Little Vixen was performed at his funeral in 1928.
- Prague National Theatre Chorus and Orchestra/Bohumil Gregor (Supraphon SU 3071-2612)
- Royal Opera House Chorus and Orchestra/Simon Rattle, recorded 1991 (Chandos 3101(2), sung in English)
- Wiener Staatsopernchor & Philharmoniker/Sir Charles Mackerras, recorded 1981 (Decca 417 129-2)
- Orchestre de Paris/Sir Charles Mackerras, video recorded 1995 (Kultur D4544, OCLC 698051148; Medici Arts, OCLC 698051148)
- In 1965, Walter Felsenstein directed a filmed version in German (Das schlaue Füchslein).
- In 2003, an animated version was produced by the BBC.
- Holden, Amanda (Ed.) (2001), The New Penguin Opera Guide, New York: Penguin Putnam. ISBN 0-14-029312-4
- Janáček, Leoš (Timothy Cheek) (2004), The Janáček Opera Libretti: Kát'a Kabanová, Scarecrow Press.
- Sokol, Martin L. (1981), "The New York City Opera - An American Adventure", Macmillan. ISBN 0-02-612280-4
- Warrack, John and West, Ewan (1992), The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, ISBN 0-19-869164-5
- Zemanová, Mirka (2002), Janáček: A Composer's Life, UPNE.
- Gavin Plumley's Leoš Janáček site, information on The Cunning Little Vixen
- The Cunning Little Vixen – Barry Kay's scenery and costume designs for the first London production; stage shots; reflections and synopsis by Colin Graham and Barry Kay
- Synopsis of The Cunning Little Vixen from the English Touring Opera
- Synopsis of The Cunning Little Vixen from the Royal Opera House
- Czech libretto with English translation
- The Cunning Little Vixen: Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project