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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Leos' Janac'ek - Animal magic

By Norman Lebrecht / April 2, 2003

No composer has ever made an opera out of a newspaper - except one, and he did it twice. Leos' Janac'ek can safely be designated the greatest opera composer of the 20th century, surmounting Puccini, Prokofiev and the later Strauss with the distinctiveness of his sound and the realism of his material.

Strolling around provincial Moravia, Janac'ek notated the way people gossiped in the market and birds sang in the trees. His music is distilled from daily life, and hence its wrenching impact at moments of passion and parting.

Like most inhabitants of an unstable region, Janac'ek was an avid newspaper reader - an evening newspaper reader. He took the Lidove Noviny at the end of a day's work and twice found in it the topics for new operas. In May 1916, the paper published a sheaf of poems left behind by a young farmer who had run off with a gypsy girl. They were soon exposed as a hoax, but not before Janac'ek had composed The Diary of One Who Disappeared, an intimate dialogue for tenor, soprano, women's chorus and piano, later orchestrated by two of his pupils.

Janacek's second newspaper extraction came about in June 1920 when he found his housemaid doubled up with giggles over a cartoon strip. 'What's so funny?' he demanded. She pointed to a picture of a fox and red vixen walking hand in hand. Janacek began to smile. 'Sir,' said the maid, 'you're always writing down animal calls. Wouldn't this make a marvellous opera?' Janacek called the Lidove Noviny editor, then buried himself in the forest. The Cunning Little Vixen emerged as a deliciously mischievous life-cycle opera, trailing its sexy little heroine through capture and liberty, procreation and haphazard mortality.

On the cover of the first edition, the vixen was depicted as half-woman, cheapening the composer's achievement. For Janacek had avoided turning animals into human stereotypes, as urban pet-owners so often do. He respected the fox as a sovereign creature and refrained from superficial musical imitations. His forester is weaker in character than most beasts of the forest.

That perception, though, is lost when the opera takes to the stage and the humans try to act like animals. No matter how a soprano contortsher body, she can never convey the dignity of a fox with prey, or at bay. Most play the role for laughs, or for what is lumpenly presumed to be a children's audience.

Of the many productions I have seen and heard (there was another, highly praised, at the Royal Academy of Music last week), none has filled me with the conviction that a great composer's vision had been realised. On stage, the Vixen is betrayed by human shortcomings.

But there is more than one way of shooting a fox. Over the past five years, a team of mostly British musicians and animators have been working on taking the story back to its roots as a cartoon. Kent Nagano, the conductor, cut the score to less than an hour and Geoff Dunbar, who made Rupert and the Frog for Paul McCartney, went out to Janac'ek's summer home at Hukvaldy to observe Moravian forest life, red in tooth and claw.

The result, sung by members of the European Opera Centre and to be shown on BBC2 over Easter, would delight David Attenborough with its unobtrusive naturalism, its sympathetic spying eye. The foxes and badgers in Dunbar's storyboard move like woodland creatures even as they (seemingly) sing. There is no false sentimentality, no humanoid love story. Forget Jungle Book, Lion King and every other anthropomorphic allegory from Hollywood's merciless food chain.

This film is about as close to nature as art will ever get, and as joyous, questing, comical and tear-inducing art as you will ever see on an oblong idiot box that is plugged into a wall. It is, in sum, a vindication of the composer's idea using technical means that were unavailable in his time. I am not sure I would want to see the Vixen performed again in any other way.

There is another cheering aspect to this breakthrough. Dunbar's film is being issued on DVD (by BBC Opus Arte) which, unlike video, lets us watch opera without wobblevision and hear music in a quality superior to mobile-phone reception. Opera on video has been a universal disaster. On DVD it augurs well, but only if producers rethink the art to suit the medium. Setting up three cameras to shoot a stage show and shoving it into a book-sized box does not, for my money or yours, constitute a DVD release. Every opera DVD I have seen until now was nothing more than a tacky souvenir of some glittering premiere that I had the professional good sense to attend, or to avoid.

None gave a sniff of atmosphere or a hint of the third dimension of depth that is lacking in all televisual presentations. If opera is to work on DVD, and if this new wing of the record industry is ever to redeem the dying chicken, it will need to revisualise performance.

Cartoon puts the right foot forward. Wagner's Ring would be greatly improved by animation, as would all comedies by Mozart and Strauss, which are otherwise too silly to submit to home viewing. Contemporary opera would benefit immensely.

The means are available, the spirit is willing. All it requires is a fraction of the enterprise that turned a newspaper strip into an opera and now into an unmissable Easter treat.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001