It has taken nearly a hundred years for us to learn how to play Janáček’s music. In his passion to bring a new entirely personal sound world to life, he threw out the conventions of orchestration, invented improbable looking textures, gave his strings parts of hair-raising difficulty and sorely tested his singers. But, as we have increasingly heard over the last forty years or so, musicians have endorsed and come to grips with his vision. Nonetheless, most Janáček performances, particularly of the last five operas, continue to reveal difficult corners, awkwardnesses of phrasing and ensemble difficulties. Not so the recent revival of The Cunning Little Vixen, currently in repertoire at the Vienna State Opera and first seen in the summer of 2014.

<i>The Cunning Little Vixen</i> in Vienna © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn (2014)
The Cunning Little Vixen in Vienna
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn (2014)

This time it is conducted by Czech-born Tomáš Netopil who made his debut at the State Opera last year in Dvorak’s Rusalka; it’s easy to see why he’s now back conducting Janáček. Rarely has this score breathed so naturally, moving between delicate textures and rich climaxes with wonderful ease and naturalness. The music not only has textural clarity, often revealing some new little detail for the first time, but Janáček’s tuttis always sound rich and wholesome rather than strained or awkward. Not only that, but he also finds a strong structural line through an opera that, in the past, could in part sound fragmented. It is a performance to stand alongside the great performances conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras.

The production was the final one to be directed by Otto Schenk after some fifty years of working at the State Opera; the sets and costume designs are by Amra Buchbinder. Those used to more edgy or contemporary-looking productions might baulk at the sheer sensuous beauty of the set: richly detailed, it is full of both realistic forest detail, atmospherically lit with fantastical costumes for the animals. It is difficult not to respond to its traditional warmth, though some might feel it belongs to a bygone age. Schenk’s direction is similarly meticulous without drawing attention to itself, often going back to the detail in the score itself in choreographing movement on the stage. Suddenly all sorts of small rhythmic figures in the orchestral tissue, that one has taken for granted for decades, are matched to entirely natural gesture.

Chen Reiss (Vixen) and Hyuna Ko (Fox) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn (2014)
Chen Reiss (Vixen) and Hyuna Ko (Fox)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn (2014)

The Cunning Little Vixen is a wonderful piece for a repertory company, with six main parts, but also a multitude of smaller ones, including brief parts for the chorus, children as well as the ballet academy of the State Opera. In the main role of the Vixen herself is Israeli-born Chen Reiss, a much more significant name on the continent than in Britain. A lively stage presence, she brought real energy to the role, often floating out gloriously above the orchestra, but, equally, occasionally fought to make herself heard against Janáček’s notoriously un-singer-friendly orchestration.

Grasshoppers © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn (2014)
Grasshoppers
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn (2014)

German-born baritone Roman Trekel was a youthful Forester, both in demeanour and in his agile yet warm light tone, tracing a sense of growth through the role. Paolo Rumetz’s Harasta brought a rich gruff warmth to the role, while the Parson, Schoolmaster and Inn Keeper were beautifully contrasted in tone and character (Marcus Pelz, Joseph Dennis & Wolfram Igor Derntl). In her scenes with the vixen, Hyuna Ko’s Fox demonstrated it was not only Richard Strauss who could write sensual vocal love music for two female voices. The remainder of the company were admirable in the opera’s innumerable small roles. All in all, a superb life-enhancing production of Janáček’s response to nature in all its beauty, cruelty and indefinable magic.