'A merry thing with a sad end' Janacek's 'Vixen' may seem to deal with childish things, but in fact it plumbs the depths of human experience.

November 15, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Leos Janacek's "The Cunning Little Vixen" is often called a children's opera.

It's a fairy tale set in a forest in which animals talk and understand the language of humans. The opera, which will be performed by Peabody Opera Theatre Nov. 19-22, is charming, funny and simple enough for a child to follow. A baby vixen is captured by a gamekeeper; she grows up and, after killing the forester's chickens, escapes to the forest, where she meets and marries a handsome fox. Though she eventually dies, she leaves behind a brood of fox cubs, including a cunning little vixen.

But "The Cunning Little Vixen" (the Czech title is "Prihody Lisky Bystrousky" or "The Adventures of Sharp-ears the Vixen") is a children's opera only in the sense that Mozart's "The Magic Flute" is. It sounds the depths of human birth, life, love and death. And while this opera, which Janacek called "A merry thing with a sad end," is less likely than "The Lion King" to make children cry, it almost invariably leaves adults in tears.

Janacek (1856-1928) wrote passionate operas about serious subjects: "Jenufa" (1904) deals with infanticide; "Katya Kabanova" (1921) with suicide; "The Makropoulos Affair" (1926) with a woman who lives more than 300 years and has had five different lives; and "The House of the Dead," a setting of Dostoevski's account of his sojourn in a Siberian prison camp.

"The Cunning Little Vixen" (1924) is as profoundly serious as any of its brothers and sisters. It's a tragicomedy that closely resembles Shakespeare's last plays, "The Winter's Tale" and "The Tempest." It presents ambiguities and uncertainties, usually identity, with a volatile mix of comedy, pathos and tragedy.

The genesis of the opera was Janacek's reading of Rudolf Tesnohlidek's novel "Bystrouska," which was serialized in 51 parts in Lidove noviny, the daily paper in the composer's hometown of Brno. Written to accompany 200 line drawings by the painter Stanislaw Lolek, "Bystrouska" was essentially a comic-book novel that continues to captivate Czech readers, adults and children alike.

Though the Vixen is the chief character, the Gamekeeper continually appears (usually in pursuit of her) and runs her a close second. Tesnohlidek's animals are partly humanized. Much about their lives - such as the Vixen's courtship scenes - is described more in human than in animal terms, and they take on comic human characteristics.

The composer transformed this Disney-like world from a tender nursery to a place invaded by sex and by death. And he caps this tale of the proximity of love and death with a sense of acceptance and a vision of rebirth.

Janacek knew something about rebirth. He began as a composer who produced music only with the utmost difficulty. He was almost 50 when, after a decade of work, he completed his first masterpiece, "Jenufa," in 1903. And after its first performance a year later in provincial Brno, Janacek lapsed back into obscurity that ended only when the first production of "Jenufa" in Prague in 1916 made him famous overnight.

In the remaining 12 years of his life, however, Janacek created a flood of works that included not only several great operas, but also masterpieces such as the "Glagolitic Mass" and the "Sinfonietta," as well as a multitude of chamber-music pieces, including song cycles and string quartets worthy to stand beside those of Schubert and Beethoven.

The reason for this outpouring was that Janacek had fallen madly in love. The unlikely object of his affections was Kamila Stassova. She was Jewish; she was uninterested in music; she was Janacek's junior by 40 years; and she was married with children.

While it is unlikely that the affair was consummated, the composer's irresistible desire for her inspired him not only to write letters to her nearly every day until he died, but also to compose one masterpiece after another. A few other composers produced great music at a comparably late age; Janacek's sheer fecundity, however, remains unmatched.

The composer's acceptance of the chasm in age and circumstances that kept his love for Kamila, and hers for him, unrequited colors "The Cunning Little Vixen." That is why, in one of his letters to her, Janacek described his work-in-progress as: "A merry thing with a sad end; and I am taking up a place at that end myself. And so I fit in there."

The action of the opera and its structure are provided by the Vixen's efforts to resist the (usually violent) attentions of the males she encounters - the lovesick Dog, the pompous Badger and, above all, the Gamekeeper, who continually tries to recapture her. One way Janacek changes Tesnohlidek's original occurs in Act I, Scene 2, where the stage directions read: "The Vixen transformed into a young girl." When the Vixen Bystrouska moans in her sleep, Janacek makes us understand what those sounds mean: She has become a nubile young woman, whose ideal notion of herself dances in her dreams.

But what about "that sad end" the composer called to Kamila's attention?

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