, November 2009
My DVD reference for this marvellous and magical opera has long been that with Sir Charles Mackerras conducting the Orchestre de Paris, Thomas Allen as an imposing Forester and Eva Jenis as an impish if somewhat heavily-shod Vixen. This is also on Arthaus 100240, and is musically and visually an entirely satisfying stage production. The release we are interested in here is not really in competition with the Mackerras, being different in so many ways as to make the two more of a complementary set than raising questions of winners and losers.
This DVD is one of a series dedicated to the work of Walter Felsenstein (1901–1975). He was founder and general director of the Komische Oper in Berlin, and was one of the twentieth century’s great creative theatre directors, playing an important role in the revival of opera as a theatrical art form. His vision of Das Schlaue Füchslein, supported by the remarkable sets and costumes of Rudolf Heinrich, is less stylised than the alternative already mentioned. The animals appear as convincingly realistic as I’ve ever seen them, with costumes which sometimes almost make you forget that there are human beings inside them. Felsentein said “Vixen is a work I fell strangely in love with…” describing Leoš Janáček as “…a unique and inimitable phenomenon in the history of music.” Two preliminary performances of this production were given on 11 and 12 May ahead of a guest performance by the Komische Oper in Prague, and the premiere took place on 30 May 1956. The recording of this production by Deutscher Fernsehfunk, the final outing of this version of the opera after a run of 218 stage performances, took place in 1965 at the Adlershof studios in Berlin…The voices are well captured, and there is a halo of acoustic resonance…The picture quality is also fair, but has that muddy lack of definition and grainy finish common to television recordings of this period. That it is black and white doesn’t bother me. The real advantage of such a genuine filmed version of such a production is the real sense of changes in perspective and scene, but more importantly the close-ups of expression from the singers. One of innumerable magical moments, the first encounter of the vixen with the forester, their eyes locked, the frightened animal frozen as if transfixed by the oncoming headlights of a car, is something you couldn’t really reproduce in the same way from a stage registration.
Possibly more disturbing for some will be the German version of the libretto, which does change the character of the text and its delivery. I can’t say this particularly worried me either. I’m the first to admit I wouldn’t be able to follow much of either language without subtitles, but with the colour and rhythm of language such an important aspect of Leoš Janáček’s music you just know it’s not quite what was intended. The lightness of character of the original is exchanged for a heavier, more angular Teutonic accent, the forester’s final reverie taking on an almost ‘Mahler in pastoral mood’ feel, but the quality of acting and strong sense of storytelling in this production is such that the eye and mind are constantly feasted, ultimately overriding linguistic doubts. As for the characters themselves, Irmgard Arnold steals just about every scene in which she appears as the vixen, drawing out attention even when merely hopping about as an out of focus spectre in the background. The important figure of the forester is portrayed very powerfully by Rudolf Asmus, and each of the other singers and players seem to have been carefully selected as having ideal qualities for each character, from the daft and dippy dog and humblest extra in the bar scene, to the pivotal priest and bad-tempered badger. The eye for detail is something which is very striking about this production. The sets are sometimes the subject of lingering static scenes and slow panning shots over the orchestral music, and the sheer atmosphere of the forest is made very real indeed. Every physical gesture of the animals renders a convincing portrayal of each beast, and the human characters are strongly defined, taken as far as possible before being pushed over the edge into stereotype or caricature. As you would expect, Václav Neumann’s handling of the orchestra is superb, even if the hi-fi definition isn’t top drawer.
The extras on this release include a recorded interview with Walter Felsenstein from 1957, in which he describes some fascinating details about the technical demands of transferring such a complex production from venue to venue while on tour. He also talks about the highly specific nature of role to actor, something which creates a genuine vibrancy in this Cunning Little Vixen. There is also his speech of gratitude to the team which recorded what we see on this DVD, backed with revealing stills of the making of the film, in preparation, and with cameras in situ. For the lucky ones who can read music, the final act is given with the score in piano reduction, with the adaptations of the German text frequently scrawled over the top of the notes in the vocal part. There are also texts in facsimile and legible simultaneous translations of Felsensteins’ speech at the 1958 Janáček congress in Brno, a letter from Václav Neumann to Walter Felsenstein - for some reason unfortunately not translated, and Rudolf Heinrich’s ‘The “Vixen Forest”, all of which provide unique insights into these key people’s views on the music and its inner mechanics and meanings. The booklet is full of illustrations and informative notes, and a chapter on the DVD also gives a marvellous view of the artwork in which costumes were sketched and planned.
As a DVD production, this release ticks all the full value boxes. Don’t be put off by the vintage of the recording or the ancient black-and-white picture technology. You are guaranteed to be captivated by the compelling individual performances, and the collective strength of the production as a whole. This Cunning Little Vixen is a remarkable document from a place and time in which the qualities and values of collaborative working in every aspect of the process of creation and performance made for something really rather special.