The Boston Conservatory presented Leos Janacek’s 1924 opera The Cunning Little Vixen last night, giving many of the departments at this formidable performance school a chance to shine. Part magical realism, part socialist metaphor, part fairytale, it is an odd work which rewards scrutiny from a variety of angles, and probably its ultimate meaning depends on the predilections of the listener. While there is an overarching story, it is presented in loosely connected scenes, after the episodic material of the original story, a serial cartoon. The language of this reduced orchestration was largely romantic with a Czech twist, and quite melodious. Written late in Janacek’s life, the piece must have held a special place in his heart, as music from the last scene was played at his funeral.
The story opens in the forest, where a forester finds a baby fox and decides to bring her home to raise. Various encounters with domesticated creatures, including the dog and a passle of hens, cause this wild thing to rail against the current order, urging the hens to rise up and create a new society where women, who do all the work, are the equal of men and workers are appreciated. The hens become confused and out of frustration the fox kills them. When the forester’s wife tries to shoot her, she runs back to the woods.
There the vixen runs into a grumpy badger, decries him as a bourgeois landowner with an apartment (den) big enough for three families; he runs off and she takes the den for herself. Then in a scene at the local tavern, the pastor, schoolmaster and forester tell stories about their lives. Separately they all stumble home through the forest, continuing their tales, while the forester catches a glimpse of the fox and tries to shoot her.
Spring returns and with it arises the desire for romance. Another fox, Goldenback, comes along and is enchanted by the vixen. The woodland creatures are scandalized by the amorous behavior of the foxes, but soon she is expecting, the foxes get married, and the whole forest celebrates.
Seasons pass and a poacher wandering through the forest retrieves a rabbit from his trap. The forester surprises him and the poacher claims he found the rabbit already dead. The forester sees the tracks of the vixen and resets the trap for her. Meanwhile, the fox couple and their large brood come back, and the parents instruct the children how to avoid traps. Then the poacher returns with a basket of chickens. The vixen pretends to limp and the poacher drops the basket to reach for his gun. The other foxes make off with the chickens, but the poacher shoots the mother fox. The fox family quits their den, sadly.
Back at the tavern, the forester teases the schoolmaster about his old girlfriend, but becomes sympathetic when he realizes the Schoolmaster is grieving over the impending marriage of the former sweetheart to the poacher. It is noted that the fiancée has a new stole. After the forester acknowledges that he is getting old, he heads home through the forest. He comes across one of the vixen’s cubs and thinks about taking her home to raise, but a little frog, the grandson of one he had encountered years ago, causes him to rethink, and so he goes on his way, leaving the vixenette in the forest.
From this one can get a sense of the tale. It’s as though a long film is unwinding in the background, and we see snippets. There’s continuity in the change of the seasons, but no classic dramatic arch, no denouement, no resolution, only the feeling that all life is interrelated, that nature continues in its glorious cycle regardless of what we do, that individuals (including the title character) can die two-thirds of the way through but life goes on. Similarly, there are no real standout arias or set pieces in a classic operatic sense. There are melodies, and a meaty duet between the fox lovers in Act II, but the work is largely through-composed.
Overall in this production, the singing was excellent, with outstanding moments from nearly all the cast. They each had a chance to shine in their brief scenes. The acting and singing of Lapak the Dog were especially first-rate, from wiggly groveling to frustrated rutting to smelling various parts of various things. The gaggle of chickens and their strutting rooster received well-earned laughs for their hilarious cluckings (their costumes, including matronly tutus and yellow galoshes, were fabulous), and their death scene featured a hysterical shedding of feathers. Costumes were ingenious, beautiful and suggestive of squirrel, mosquito, dragonfly, lizard ….. The insects were particularly fine, and so was the in the wedding ballet choreography.
The Boston City Singers, one of the busiest and hardest-working ensembles in town, contributed the fox children and one very good frog. Not only did they look adorable, they sang in Czech and were completely at home onstage. Bravo also to lighting designer Jen Rock: one scene, with sideways autumnal light, was just beautiful.
The weakest link was the orchestra. The music may be challenging and a bit above the heads of some of the players. Violin intonation was rough, and the third act seemed the least-rehearsed. This did not spoil the show but was noticeable. Given the caliber of the rest of the production, it was a surprise, and no doubt will improve over the run.