The Cunning Little Vixen, Opera by Leoš Janáček
The inspiration for Leoš Janáček’s contemplation of the circle of life, The Cunning Little Vixen (an opera originally called “Příhody lišky bystroušky”, or “The Adventures of Vixen Sharp-Ears” in English) is perhaps one of the most unusual to be found anywhere in the genre. Its libretto, written by Janáček himself, was based on a serialised comic strip, Liška Bystrouška (Vixen Sharp-Ears), created by Rudolf Těsnohlídek and the artist Stanislav Lodek, which first appeared in the Czech daily newspaper, Lidové noviny, in 1920.
Composed in his late sixties and premiered in Brno on 6 November 1924, by which time he was seventy, Janáček’s opera is more melancholic than Těsnohlídek’s original tale. Historians believe that the work reflects the sadness in Janáček’s personal life, a consequence of his unrequited love for Kamila Stösslová who was already married and nearly forty years younger than her admirer.
Although the woodland animals in The Cunning Little Vixen share some of the qualities of their human counterparts, there is no cute Disneyesque anthropomorphisation in Janáček’s world. Rather their powers of song allow us to understand their instincts; these are characters, despite the pastoral idyll they inhabit, whose lives are a daily struggle for survival.
Janáček’s vixen suffers capture by a forester when she is still a child. She escapes, but not until she has taught a clutch of chickens a lesson or two. She goes on to experience love and motherhood before falling to a poacher’s bullet. In the final scene, the forester reflects sadly on the vixen’s death before seeing one of her mischievous cubs. Anticipating the promise of new beginnings, he reaches out to grab the vixen’s offspring, but instead clasps his hands onto a frog: an echo of the moment at the very beginning of the opera, when another frog chasing a mosquito lands on his nose, that confirms the cyclical nature of existence.
The Cunning Little Vixen, which now comes to the Národní divadlo, the National Theatre in Prague, was so dear to Janáček’s heart that, at his request, its final, poignant scene was played at his funeral. The opera contains some of his most beautiful music and is unerringly melodic; Janáček stretched the rules of tonality but, unlike some of his contemporaries, never abandoned them altogether.