It's so darned cute it's spoiled! Can an opera that has animals as singing characters, based on a cartoon, be TOO cute? You betcha it can! Especially when the staging is shallow and static, the costumes look like Halloween get-ups, and the humans are all portrayed as witless clowns.
The Cunning Little Vixen is a symphonic poem shaped as an opera, so let's start with the Orchestra of the Opera National de Paris, conducted by Dennis R Davies. They're wimpy! They play the whole score as colorful sound effects. They nver catch the sweeping grandeur of Janacek's paean to nature. They don't get it. Besides, the orchestra and chorus are never musically integrated and acoustically balanced. If this were a CD, one would throw it away.
Next, the wild animals. The decision to use children - cute little amateurs at that - instead of dancers is a disaster. The children stand or stumble around the shallow stage without any sense of the vivacity of their animal beings, as expressed in the musical score. They look like they're presenting a school pageant. A few of them are required to sing, but don't have the voices to impinge their roles on the orchestral score. The close-ups of their charming little faces are distracting and nothing more.
Then, the domestic animals. Costumes and blocking are both just for the laughs, though I didn't hear any laughs among the small group of friends who watched this DVD with me. The chickens were embarrassingly stodgy in movement. The old dog, an important singing role, had no wistful sadness about him. No yearning to be wild. Director Andre Engel just didn't get it!
Worst of all, the Forester, the central role. Here he isn't a forester at all, but some kind of besotted oaf of a railroad stationmaster. He needs to be a man of some vigor and bravado, not a silly wuss! The whole opera builds toward his final scene, his apotheosis as it were, or rather his rebirth as Man in Nature. The Forester's last "aria" has to be thrilling, not sappy. This is an opera about revivification and regeneration, about springtime and lust for life! The Forester, despite his boozing and his marital strife, LOVES LIFE, as incarnated in the Vixen. One could take Janacek as projecting a kind of pantheism in his opera, but the message I get from it is that Life and Nature are one and the same, and humans fall into foolish futility when they lapse out of that cycle of integration. Despite its cartoon charm and playfulness, The Cunning Little Vixen is an opera that intends to be profound. This production, however, does everything possible to distract us from its meaning.
The only highlight here is the vivacious performance by Elena Tsallagova in the role of the Vixen. Her stage presence is as saucy and willful as it should be, and her voice is the only one of the whole cast that seems to hold its own in the symphonic context of the score. Give her a decent staging and a Forester with some masculine energy, and I'll bet sparks would fly.
I love this opera. It's among my favorites of the whole 20th C, and before this DVD, I could hardly imagine it failing. On the other hand, it seems to be emerging from neglect and vying for a place in the standard repertoire of opera companies both in Europe and the USA. There's an older DVD production of it, from the Theâtre du Chatelet, conducted by Charles Mackerras, which is far superior to this one.