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8.570706 - JANACEK, L.: Operatic Orchestral Suites, Vol. 3 (arr. P. Breiner) - The Cunning Little Vixen / From the House of the Dead
Leoš Janáček (1854–1928)
Leoš Janáček was a born dramatist. Although many of his works were based on pre-existing works (Jenůfa, Kát’a Kabanová and The Makropulos Case are all derived from popular contemporary plays), over the course of his career Janáček became more confident and created his own librettos. This third volume of Peter Breiner’s suites from Janáček’s operas focuses on two of his mature masterpieces, The Cunning Little Vixen (1924) and From the House of the Dead (posthumous première in 1930), neither of which is based on a conventional dramatic text. The Cunning Little Vixen is derived from a series of cartoons, while From the House of the Dead is taken from Fyodr Dostoevsky’s reportage memoirs of his time in a Siberian prison camp.
In 1920 the popular Brno newspaper Lidové noviny serialised Vixen Bystrouška, a joyful and quixotic tale by Rudolf Tĕsnohlídek (based on pictures by Stanislav Lolek). Tĕsnohlídek originally suggested that the Vixen (and his story) was rather unsophisticated material for an opera, which certainly showed how unaware he was of the refined work that Janáček would tease out of a simple newspaper story. The Cunning Little Vixen, although thoroughly imbued with the humour and spirit of the original cartoons, is a more serious work. Over the course of the drama (and particularly after the death of the eponymous heroine) it becomes clear that through this charming little story Janáček is uncovering a more fundamental truth about the natural world.
The suite begins in the late afternoon sun of the forest. The chattering of the animals can be heard against the lull of the heat as the Forester begins his journey home. Of particular note here is a dragonfly, heard flying around the forest. Although it meets its end during the course of the overture, its brief life hints at the pervasive mortality and cycle of nature at the heart of the opera. In the second movement we join the Vixen after the Forester has captured her, at first stymied by her domestication and then, in a numinous interlude, dreaming of escape. This break-out is realised in the final moments of the movement, as she kills the entire chicken coup, breaks her leash and bolts over the fence back into the forest. Back in her natural habitat, the Vixen meets a dashing young fox and the third movement is based on music from their lush courtship duet at the close of Act Two. Recalling the late summer heat in Act Two of Kát’a Kabanová, there is a heavy sense of melancholy about the musical language, with pining woodwind solos overlapping as the harmonies become more heightened. Moving back with the tap of xylophone we hear the Vixen’s triumphal dance as she evicts the Badger from his set. Taking possession of his former home, the Vixen stamps out a vicious Charleston, before the music returns to the string-based love music of before. The fourth movement is a further development of themes from the second act, ending in the Vixen and Fox’s sunny wedding celebrations.
After the heady second act, the fifth movement returns us to the brutality of nature, heard first in the depiction of winter in the forest. The Vixen is desperately searching out food for her burgeoning young family and the Entr’acte to the third act depicts the capture and death of a small hare. The poacher Harašta can be heard stalking through the forest, singing a lilting folk-song. A second section recalls the music that sounds after the death of the Vixen by Harašta’s hand. Ethereal woodwind and strings ululate as plangent clarinet and oboe solos alternate, beautifully describing the tragedy of the piece. The final movement moves towards more hopeful morals, with the vivacious chorus of the fox cubs, the rattle of percussion picking out their simple ditty, before the full orchestra (with the shimmer of cymbals) rings out the final hymn to the glories of nature, which sounds after the Forester realises that nature has an eternal cycle, if we could only look after it.
Although much bleaker in origin, Dostoevsky’s fictionalised account of his time in a remote Siberian prison shares with Tĕsnohlídek’s Vixen a preoccupation with freedom and mortality. In an ‘open letter’ from 12 February 1927 Janáček expressed his need to ‘go right to the truth’ in his next work. For a man who plundered his local newspaper for possible subjects for operas and song cycles, Janácek’s choice of Dostoevsky’s fictionalised account of his prison life in Siberia is not uncharacteristic. Dostoevsky was exiled there as a result of his involvement in a politically liberal organization and his subsequent memoirs are a precursor of reportage. The text itself is a mixture of vignettes, where no individual, even the prisoner Gorjančikov who arrives at the beginning of the drama, has centre stage. Not following a direct narrative line, this opera is markedly different from Janáček’s previous works; these are only representative scenes from a much larger drama. As with The Cunning Little Vixen, however, Janáček approaches this world with a richly symphonic language, more sparse than the bucolic romanticism of The Vixen, but equally redolent in its use of telling motifs and descriptive language.
The caustic sound world of Janáček’s final opera is immediately apparent in the bitter overture, which forms the first movement of the suite. Originally conceived as a violin concerto (and initially entitled ‘The pilgrimage of a little soul’), this strident opening theme, replete with the sounds of chains, is an immediate entry into the bleak world of the Siberian penal system. The second movement follows the music as the curtain rises, with the prisoners arriving from the barracks, washing and eating. Despite the cruelty of their situation (with the omnipresent sound of the chains), a rising ‘motto’ theme portends freedom (or at least some spiritual release). Again following the topic of liberty, the third movement is based around music in the second act, when the prisoners celebrate a religious feast. The jangle of bells and the dancing nature of the music create a dialogue with the unpleasant growl of the lower brass. The next two movements describe two important scenes in the drama, the first where a vindictive prisoner wounds a young tartar boy Alyeya, who is very dear to many of the prisoners. The second when the prisoners perform two plays on a makeshift stage, one called Kedril and Don Juan, the other The Miller’s Beautiful Wife. This ribald drama represents another false dawn of freedom for the prisoners, one of whom goes off with a prostitute after the festivities are finished. The last movement is based around the third and final act. Beginning with Alyeya’s recovery in the prison hospital, we hear a poignant exchange between him and Gorjančikov. While Alyeya recovers fully and Gorjančikov is released (mirrored in the flight of an eagle with a broken wing that the prisoners have been helping to heal), any sense of resolution is brief as the remaining inmates are ordered back to their work. As a final statement on the human condition, From the House of the Dead is a distinctly pessimistic contradiction of the glorious pantheistic message of The Cunning Little Vixen. Facing old age, and probably coming to the realisation that he was facing the end himself, Janáček was unwilling to leave behind a glib and clear-cut moral message.
© Gavin Plumley, 2009
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