Animal attraction

Director David Pountney brings another rarely performed opera to the stage as the curtain goes up on 'The Cunning Little Vixen' this week.

animal attraction (photo credit: Karm Forster)
animal attraction
(photo credit: Karm Forster)
British opera director David Pountney has a reputation for staging rarely performed operas. It is no surprise, then, that Pountney is behind the first local production of Leos Janacek's charming masterpiece, The Cunning Little Vixen (1924). The curtain rises at the Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv on February 25. "I have always been very interested in expanding the repertoire. I'm naturally curious about the fantastic wealth of music," Pountney says during a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post at a Tel Aviv hotel. "Many theaters are quite lazy about performing the same well known things." The Cunning Little Vixen is based on a comic strip called "Vixen Sharp Ears" that appeared in a Czech newspaper in the early 1920s. "Janacek was dazzlingly original in the way he took subjects and turned them into operatic subjects. There is absolutely no model for the dramaturgy of this piece. It's still modern in its construction now and yet he had no contact with all the other sort of avant garde people of his generation," says Pountney. The Cunning Little Vixen is an opera that features numerous animals onstage. Janacek portrays the animals like human beings while the human beings in this story are much less humane than the animals around them. This opera is a story of survival in nature, a story of the changing of the seasons and above all, a story of the cycle of life. It is the story of the charming vixen and how she lives out her life story - her capture by the Forester, courtship by the fox, family life with a troupe of delightful cubs, and finally her death at the hands of the poacher. The vixen's daughter, who she leaves behind, starts the life cycle over again. "I think it's the best opera of the 20th century because it sets about saying something that is very profound... This whole business of the cycle of life and the regeneration of nature," says Pountney. "He weighs death as being no worse than birth. In that sense, it's a remarkably unsentimental piece which is easily misunderstood because people get very sentimental about animals." The Cunning Little Vixen made its debut in 1924 in Brno. At Janacek's request, the final scene from The Cunning Little Vixen was performed at his funeral in 1928. The opera's first UK performance was at the Sadler's Wells Opera in 1961. But The Cunning Little Vixen did not appear with regularity outside Czechoslovakia until the 1970s. And though it was staged in Santa Fe (1975), Melbourne (1976), San Francisco (1977), Osaka (1977), Gothenburg (1978) and Tokyo (1978), the opera got its real entry into the global repertory with Pountney's interpretation in 1980 with the Scottish Opera/Welsh National Opera. The Cunning Little Vixen is "a masterly amalgam of operatic dialogue, songs, chorus, wordless singing, ballet, mime, orchestral interlude," Pountney wrote in The Royal Opera program book back in 2003 when describing the work. "Janacek takes the cartoon method of juxtaposing scene and form. This work moves between animal and the human, and combines the mythic, the tragic and the comic, achieving, in one and a half hours, everything Wagner set out in 'Opera and Drama.'" THE ANIMAL characters make the opera accessible to younger audiences. In the Czech Republic today, The Cunning Little Vixen is often performed as a Sunday matinee so that the whole family can attend performances. "It is a good introduction for young people because it's fast, funny and the animals are always sort of attractive in that cartoon way," says the 61-year-old Pountney. "It nonetheless touches on things that are very profound. The great cartoons are full of psychological meaning. It's not really a piece about all humanity, but it's a piece for all humanity and everyone can take their own message away from it. The most profound message is actually for older people. It's all about human beings struggling at the end of their lives as Janacek himself was. This idea of seeing and accepting the meaning of death and memory of their sexually active years in a very non-explicit way." Although dozens of soloists share the stage and though a good chunk of the cast is children, for Pountney the most challenging aspects of the opera are the sets. "The most complicated thing about it is the way Janacek thought, he thought in cinematic terms," he explains. "A lot of scenes are very short. In stage terms, that's often quite difficult to keep pace because stage scenery is not like a film. It's a physically clumsy thing. This speed and dexterity of the way the piece is written is quite tricky to follow. But I think we found a very neat way [to do that]." And while here to direct The Cunning Little Vixen, Pountney took an afternoon off during his recent visit to meet with the widow of forgotten composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg. In continuing his reputation for staging rarely performed operas, the Oxford-born Pountney will premiere one of Weinberg's operas next year in Austria. The Polishborn Weinberg was an important Soviet composer who left a large body of work that included 22 symphonies and 17 string quartets. Weinberg has even been described as "the third great Soviet composer, along with Prokofiev and Shostakovich." "There are all these operas to discover," Pountney said. Just as Pountney relaunched Janacek's global career, Weinberg's work might very well break out onto the worldwide repertory with its Austria premiere. Pountney will also return to our shores soon in order to direct La Juive by Fromental Halevy at the Israeli Opera. As for those used to mainstream operas, Pountney believes The Cunning Little Vixen will nonetheless excite. "I think it's an instant theatrical experience; there are no conventions in it, no formal verse drama structure as you'd expect in a Verdi opera. In a way, it's more like going to a film. It's something that carries you through on the flow of its dramatic and musical ideas," he says. "I hope audiences will take away with them that it's possible to be funny and profound in the same sentence." The Cunning Little Vixen will run from February 25-March 6 at the Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv.