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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
The Cunning Little Vixen (in English)

Libretto by Leoš Janáček, English translation by Yveta Synek Graff and Robert T Jones

Forester – Thomas Allen (bass)
Mosquito/Schoolmaster – Robert Tear (tenor)
Forester’s Wife/Owl – Gillian Knight (soprano)
Vixen – Lillian Watson (soprano)
Priest/Badger – Gwynne Howell (bass)
Pásek, innkeeper – John Dobson (tenor)
Harašta, a poacher – Nicholas Folwell (baritone)
Fox – Diana Montague (mezzo-soprano)
Innkeeper’s Wife - Elizabeth Bainbridge (mezzo-soprano)
Hens, Forest creatures and Voices
Royal Opera House Chorus, Covent Garden
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Simon Rattle
Recorded Abbey Road, London, June 1990
CHANDOS CHAN 3101(2) [2 CDs: 96.47]

Originally released in 1990 by EMI this English language double CD box has been revivified by the increasingly bold and wide-ranging Chandos team. For that we should be grateful because this is a most sympathetically sung and conducted Vixen with an almost Puccinian lyricism and warmth. One measure of the success can be heard in the subtlety with which Rattle unfolds orchestral strands; in the Act I Pantomine and Interlude he takes the greatest possible care to draw out the flute lines and distinguish them from the other winds and from the buffet of string tone. The result is to preserve the verdancy of orchestration at this point and to characterise the supportive tissue with greater depth. It’s a feature of Rattle’s conducting that he lavishes exceptional attention to this kind of detail whilst never impeding the dramatic tension of the opera. His is one of the most purely lyrical and effulgent readings of the score I have heard – he extracts marvellously flexible string playing in the mid-Act Interlude, and in the Vixen’s passage beginning Can it be that I am lovely? It’s true to say that the Interludes have seldom been conducted with such consistently tactile glow or that the Straussian inheritance (Act III Fox; How many children do we have?) has only infrequently emerged with such eloquent understatement.

The singers make a uniformly integrated and attractive team. The Forester is Thomas Allen; Robert Tear takes Mosquito and the Schoolmaster and Gwynne Howell the Badger and the Priest. John Dobson should certainly not be overlooked as the innkeeper Pásek. Allen has an ease of voice production and a stage command that are very appealing; Tear grows in depth and self-realisation whilst Howell blusters excellently as the Priest. Dobson’s turn is a study in beery drama. The men are matched by the women; The Vixen (Vixen Sharp-Ears) is Lillian Watson whose sense of line and lyricism entirely complement Rattle’s own. Diana Montague’s Fox is also eloquence itself though at times there are such tonal similarities between the voices that a sense of abrupt characterisation momentarily disappears. Karen Shelby makes a real show as the Dog – what has happened to her? – and Gillian Knight makes no less of an appeal in her dual roles of the Forester’s Wife and the Owl.

The production is in English of course and for many this will be the sticking point though there are far fewer obvious problems than you might imagine with the first vowel stress of Czech. That said there is a language issue at stake and this, taken simultaneously with Rattle’s overt lyricism, tends somewhat to smooth over the more resinous forestry of Czech performances. Obviously Dalibor Jedlička and Lucia Popp are impossible to efface in the Mackerras recording – with Blachut turning up as the Schoolmaster for good measure – and the latter’s conducting represents a leaner and less obviously lyrical approach. Where Rattle’s forest is frequently bathed in sunlight Mackerras’ is more shadowed. I like the former but I take the latter to be the more effective realisation of the score and its essential truth.

The booklet notes are in English, French and German though the libretto is only in English. For all the language and interpretative issues it’s good to have this often thrilling set back in the catalogue; Chandos are doing us proud in their selective and astute reclamation of such material.

Jonathan Woolf



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