The National Theatre in Prague should be the second-best place in the world to see Leoš Janáček's charming opera The Cunning Little Vixen. More on the best place shortly. But first, a look at why the current production, new in the repertoire this season, is such a disappointment.

Kateřina Jalovcová (Fox) and Alžběta Poláčková (Vixen Sharp-Ears) © Hana Smejkalova
Kateřina Jalovcová (Fox) and Alžběta Poláčková (Vixen Sharp-Ears)
© Hana Smejkalova

Vixen is based on a novella that ran as a serial in the daily newspaper Lidové noviny in the spring of 1920. An animal fable with an archetypal clever fox motif, it appealed to the composer's love of nature and was a good fit with his musical vocabulary, drawn from the phrasings and rhythms of Moravian folk music. His inventive evocation of forest scenes, often in extended music interludes with no singing, was groundbreaking in its time and has enjoyed enduring popularity around the world.

But staging the piece poses a number of problems. For one thing, many of the characters are animals, which calls for creative and potentially expensive sets and costuming. And Vixen is much more than a cute animal story. Both the text and music contain powerful psychological undercurrents of melancholy, regret and erotic desire, reflecting Janáček's personal life. Blending that with cheery animals romping through the forest is a difficult balancing act.

Director Ondřej Havelka basically chose not to – which is puzzling, given his extended program notes about the symbolism of the piece. His sole nod to its darker elements is an awkward personification of Terynka, the young girl who floats through the opera as an elusive object of desire, often invoked but never seen. Except in this production, where she and the Forester have a sexual encounter early in the first act. Is it real? Or a dream the Forester is having during his nap? In this clumsy staging it’s difficult to tell, especially for someone coming to the opera for the first time.

The Cunning Little Vixen © Hana Smejkalova
The Cunning Little Vixen
© Hana Smejkalova

And what should the children in the audience make of this? Ordinarily, that question wouldn't matter, but the National Theatre is pitching this version of Vixen as family entertainment, and judging by the number of youngsters in the audience, doing it very well. Once Terynka is off the stage, there's plenty for the kids: lots of colorful and wacky animal costumes, dancers doing a great job of imitating birds and squirrels, Bystrouška the vixen tearing loose in the barnyard by pulling all the chickens' heads off.

Mostly the animals and humans chase each other around the stage, and sadly, that's most of the action. As nonstop slapstick it's good fun, but there's no substance to it. Nor is there much substance in the scenes at the pub, or the Forester's reveries, or the priest's nostalgic, drunken ramble through the woods – which in this production takes him into the audience. It all flashes by and spins around in a rambunctious whirl, with nothing at the center to hold it together.

The one exception is the courtship scene between Bystrouška and Zlatohřbítek, given extended care and loving attention, and sung beautifully on Tuesday night by Alžběta Poláčková and Kateřina Jalovcová, respectively. Their rather frumpy costumes robbed the scene of some its romantic glow, but the women's voices were golden, and the animal hesitancy and coyness in their acting was spot-on. Jakub Kettner made a serviceable Forester, and Jiří Hájek was a strong late addition as Harašta the poacher. The second act also benefited from the Kühn Children's Choir, which added an innocent luster to the vocals.  

The Cunning Little Vixen © Hana Smejkalova
The Cunning Little Vixen
© Hana Smejkalova

The National Theatre Orchestra was competent under the direction of Zbynĕk Müller, but not much more – another disappointment. Janáček's music should sparkle like diamonds in his home country, especially in this marvelously animated piece. Aside from some inspired moments in the woodwinds, it simply never had that sound or spirit. And at regular intervals throughout the evening the orchestra drowned out the singers, an unforgivable faux pas in a theater of this caliber and pedigree.

The National Theatre has satellite operations throughout the country, and the best place to hear Janáček is Brno, the capital city of Moravia. The composer is revered there, and the music is in the performers' blood. By contrast, for many years the National Theatre in Prague refused to stage Janáček's operas, a byproduct of rivalries too complicated to detail here. That should be history, but in trying to explain the return of Vixen after a 10-year absence from its repertoire, the Prague theatre’s website notes “the ingrained prejudice against the composer's music.”

Moravia and the rest of the world respectfully disagree.