About us / Contact

The Classical Music Network


Europe : Paris, Londn, Zurich, Geneva, Strasbourg, Bruxelles, Gent
America : New York, San Francisco, Montreal                       WORLD

Your email :



The Cycle of Life

Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
01/26/2024 -  & January 28, February 3, 8, 10, 14, 16*, 2024
Leos Janácek: Príhody lísky Bystrousky
Jane Archibald*/Karoline Podolak (Vixen), Christopher Purves*/Joel Allison (Forester), Ema Nikolovska*/Carolyn Sproule (Fox), Megan Latham*/Queen Hezumuryango (Forester’s Wife, Owl), Alex Halliday*/Korin Thomas‑Smith (Harasta), Wesley Harrison (Schoolmaster, Mosquito), Giles Tomkins (Badger, The Priest), Carolyn Sproule*/Alex Hetherington (Lapák), Adam Luther (Innkeeper, Rooster), Charlotte Siegel (Hen, Innkeeper’s Wife), Ariane Cossette (Woodpecker, Pepík), Lee Macerollo-Korzeniowski*/Apsara Ilanko (Cricket), Sofia Melnyk-Gomez*/Katie Lair (Grasshopper), Joel Glickman Rosen*/Lilia Javanrouh Giv (Frog), Emma Moreau*/Olivia Pady (Young Vixen), Ilana Zankin (Jay, Frantík)
Canadian Opera Company Chorus, Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus, Sandra Horst (chorus master), Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Johannes Debus*/Derek Bate (conductor)
Jamie Manton (Stage Director), Ruth Knight (Associate Director), Tom Scutt (Sets & Costumes), Lucy Carter (Lighting Designer)

J. Archibald, C. Purves (© Michael Cooper)

The son of a schoolteacher in the region of Moravia, young Leos Janácek’s musical talent convinced his father to allow him a musical career. Never a conformist, he was by all accounts a gifted though perturbed student at the Brno Conservatory and later the Leipzig Conservatory. An enfant terrible, he wrote a scathing review of his teacher’s conducting at the Brno Conservatory which got him expelled (his teacher later relented, allowing his return). Later in life, another virulent review of an opera by Czech composer Karel Kovarovic gained him the latter’s everlasting enmity. When Kovarovic eventually became Director of the National Theatre in Prague, he understandably refused to premiere Jenůfa there as retribution. This bitterness persisted for twelve years after its 1904 Brno premiere, until he was forced to yield to immense popular pressure.

The 1904 premiere of Jenůfa in Brno took place when Janácek (born in 1854) was already middle‑aged. He had made his living as a provincial music teacher and organist in Brno, but after Jenůfa’s debut in Prague and its ensuing international success, he embarked on a remarkable second period of productivity during which he wrote what are now considered to be major works: Kátia Kabanová (1921); The Cunning Little Vixen (1924); The Makropulos Case (1926); From the House of the Dead (1928); Taras Bulba (1921); Sinfonietta (1926); the Glagolitic Mass (1927); String Quartet No. 1 “"Kreutzer Sonata” (1924); and String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters” (1928). It is believed that the fecund last years of his life were due to his passion for Kamila Stösslova, a young married woman 38 years his junior. This unfulfilled passion was channeled into an abundant creativity. The Cunning Little Vixen, in particular, is possibly an unconscious paean to an impossible love, somewhat similar to Oscar Wilde’s children’s tale The Nightingale and the Rose (1888), where a nightingale falls in love with a young man.

It was written towards the end of his life, exactly four years before his death in 1928. It is likely that he was reflecting on his eventual death, on youth and on the cycle of life. The latter is the central theme of the opera. The Czech title, Príhody lisky Bystrousky, translates as “Tales of Vixen Sharp‑Ears”. The story was based on a serialized novella by Rudolf Těsnohlídek that appeared in a Czech newspaper in 1920. The English title, The Cunning Little Vixen, is the translation of Max Brod’s 1927 German adaptation, Das schlaue Füchslein.

The opera recounts the story of a vixen cub that falls into the lap of a forester while chasing a frog. The forester forcibly takes her home and raises her as a pet. Years later, as a young adult, Sharp‑Ears is vexed by the forester’s annoying children, his overbearing wife and the domestic ennui of the household’s dog and chickens. She chews through the rope, kills the rooster and the chickens and runs into the wild where she meets a young fox. Sarcastically, an unexpected pregnancy forces the pair to marry to avoid forest gossip! In the final act, Sharp‑Ears, now a mother of several cubs, is shot by Harasta, a poacher. The latter makes a fur out of her hide as a gift to his bride, the gypsy Ternyka. At the wedding ceremony, the forester sees the bride wearing the fur and understands that his beloved pet Sharp‑Ears has died. He goes to mourn at the spot where he had first met and trapped the vixen. A frog jumps into his lap followed by a vixen, one of Sharp‑Ears’ cubs, reassuring the now old forester of the ever renewing cycle of life.

This rather ugly production was incomprehensibly imported from the ENO (English National Opera). Given the story’s ever‑present forest, its trees and animals, an appealing green set seems like the only logical setting. However, stage director Jamie Manton had other ideas. The problem is that none of these concepts were sufficiently developed. The forester becomes a logger in Manton’s setting. The lush Moravian forest gives way to hideous tree logs, referring to man’s incursion into nature and his appetite for destruction. This clouds the essential themes of aging and dying, the endless cycle of life, and the way we grieve for those we love and the anticipation and acceptance of our own eventual passing. Other than ugliness, the tree logs add nothing to this eternal theme. Moreover, the trope of man’s destructiveness, a timely one certainly worth exploring, was unexplored.

The costumes, especially those of the forest animals and insects, were colourful but hard to decipher. The foxes, the frog and several insects were possible to deduce, but the dog was an ill‑defined blob, more akin to low‑budget science fiction movies. Mobile mushrooms were puzzling until someone commented they may in fact have been red and black ladybugs. The villagers’ costumes were also mysterious. It was impossible to tell who was the schoolmaster and who was the priest in Act II’s trio with the forester. Again, science fiction came to mind in the scene where the three are supposedly drinking beer. The bar was reduced to kegs with tentacle-like tubes through which the trio imbibed their drinks. Throughout the opera, a suspended scroll indicated the life stages of the forester. If only it had contributed a dash of colour to the drab proceedings! It only served as an unsubtle didactic tool to represent the stages of life.

In Act I, Janácek is quite avant‑garde as Sharp‑Ears, lamenting her own captivity, questions the patriarchy the chicken must endure from the puffed up rooster. This is unsurprising given the Czech’s own rebelliousness. The vixen invites the oppressed chickens to rebel. Perhaps because the chicken’s costumes were rather appealing, stage director Jamie Manton altered the outcome of the revolt. Sharp‑Ears simply kills the rooster and leaves the dolled up chickens alive. In the following act, they wandered in the forest, giving some colour to the lackluster sets. How domesticated chickens would survive in the wild, especially among foxes, is another matter.

Again in Act II, Janácek is revolutionary, foretelling his country’s future decades of communism. Sharp‑Ears lectures a badger about his living alone in luxury in a cozy home before ejecting him and taking it over. Amusingly, the vixen herself is initially alone in the badger’s hole until she meets a young male fox. When the young foxes are forced to marry due to an unexpected pregnancy, they search for a priest. In some productions, a red cardinal appropriately officiates over the marriage ceremony. Given the ambiguity of the costumes, it wasn’t clear which animal officiated.

Fortunately, the principal singers were more appealing than the sets. Jane Archibald’s soprano soared effortlessly in the title role’s high tessitura. She was also able to convey the vixen’s impetuous youthfulness both through her expressiveness and agility. Her soprano blended well with that of Serbian mezzo Ema Nikolovska, as her suitor and eventual husband. However, the chemistry between the two was lacking for Act II’s duet, which should have been an emotional high point.

Baritone Christopher Purves was an impressive forester, both vocally and dramatically. Last heard in Toronto in 2016 as Alberich in the Ring production that opened this very venue, he is a true singing actor. One could feel his sadness and yearning, his attachment to the vixen and his serenity at the end of the opera.

Staunchly anti-Wagnerian, Janácek firmly believed in creating a new music idiom inspired by his Czech heritage. For years, he researched the folklore of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia. He was also interested in the inflection of the Czech language, which he integrated into his operatic compositions. The fusion of Janácek’s music with the Czech language is one reason his works are best served in his language. Though not a Czech speaker myself, I had attempted to learn it for operatic reasons. I’m somewhat familiar with several Czech recordings of Janácek’s works and I can say that much of the singing did not seem idiomatic. By chance, two ladies seated nearby were Czech, and confirmed my suspicions. Only the Serbian mezzo, Christopher Purves and one minor character sang with a comprehensible diction. These women had to read the subtitles along with most of the audience. This raises the question of the validity of performing operas in the original language when most of the cast cannot easily grasp it. The English National Opera, from whom this production was on loan, performed it in English, which might have been the more prudent choice in Toronto as well.

Ossama el Naggar



Copyright ©ConcertoNet.com